Rogers, Foster, Farrell, Hopkins, Grimshaw … The long reigns of these signature architects are coming to an end. We look at what will happen when they go
Marco Goldschmied's decision to leave his post as managing director of Richard Rogers Partnership came as a shock to the British architectural community. Goldschmied had been with RRP for 35 years, and he had become the organisational hub for the whole practice.

In a statement this week Goldschmied said he was looking to pursue personal projects particularly with charities, but there have been reports of a "difficult and edgy" atmosphere at the firm in recent months. Although Goldschmied says he has been contemplating the move for 18 months, what seems fairly certain is that this was not the way that RRP was hoping to manage the succession from the founding generation of Rogers, Goldschmied, John Young and Mike Davies to the heirs apparent, such as Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour.

RRP does not hold the copyright in this problem. Succession is an issue for a whole generation of signature architects: Rogers is 71, his former partner Norman Foster is 69 as is Sir Michael Hopkins, and Sirs Terry Farrell and Nicholas Grimshaw are 65. This class of architectural nobility has dominated the British architecture scene for 20 years, but the time has perhaps come for them to decide who will carry on their legacies. The younger generation, those in their 40s, are eager to take over the mantle.

The signature architects have a few questions to ponder. Do they want their practices to keep their name? Do they want to stick around themselves? And, most importantly of all, who is going to succeed them?

It might be expected that these firms would have decided the answers to these questions long ago; it is not clear that they all have.

Grimshaw has a detailed succession plan, but many of the others have either sketchy details or will not reveal their proposals publicly.

Hopkins says his strategy is "a continuing devolution of leadership, management and ownership to senior people who have been with the practice more than 10 years". Foster and Partners recently restructured into six key divisions after the departure of Foster's right-hand man and possible successor, Ken Shuttleworth (8 April, page 11). The practice said it is working on plans that will be published in December. Farrell's practice, which recently lost Aidan Potter and Doug Streeter, its two obvious heirs, declined to comment. If any of these practices' key men walked into the path of a Number 38 tomorrow, there is probably no finalised succession strategy among many of the country's top architects.

Grimshaw's succession plan seems to be well designed. It formally allows chairman Grimshaw to take a back seat as he travels the world as the firm's ambassador. And he appointed Keith Brewis to the board last year to "spearhead the new generation" of talented young architects in Fitzroy Square. Brewis' job is to spot the rising stars among the associate directors.

We’ve agreed the methodology for succession. It’s been done not by edict, but by discussion

Tim Hamilton, Hamilton Associates

Most importantly, it gives clear guidelines on what Grimshaw's four main men will do. The equity partners – Christopher Nash, Andrew Whalley, Neven Sidor and David Harriss – will gradually assume a larger chunk of the business from Grimshaw. This should reduce one of the key gripes often made in the signature firms, which is that the figurehead receives the lion's share of the cash as well as the plaudits for what is always a team effort. The other side of the deal is that all four will retire when they are 60.

"We're happy because we feel we're well prepared for the future succession of the practice, compared with what we hear about our peers," says Nash, Grimshaw's managing director. "We've had outside commentators coming up to us and saying 'You seem to be well sorted out'."

Bill Taylor, Hopkins' managing director, also insists that his firm's future is well-plotted. He refuses to discuss the detail of Hopkins' personal exit strategy, but says there is a "system devised". The system is there to ensure that those on the lower rungs of the company's ladder see a future for themselves at the practice: "The main aim is for all the younger people to think that it's not all about Michael, Patty (Hopkins' wife and joint chairman) and myself," he says.

The problem extends beyond the signature names. At Hamilton Associates, plans have been made for Tim Hamilton, its chairman. He has signed a 10-year contract, under which he will gradually hand over responsibilities and equity to others. "It wasn't easy to put in place," says Hamilton. "But what we've done is get the methodology for succession agreed so everyone's 100% clear. And it's been done not by edict, but by discussion."

Paul Hyett, former RIBA president, foresees a passing of the era of the founding "names". Architects, he says, should be more like engineers such as Arup, where the charisma of founder Ove Arup has been routinised into the Arup brand.

Hyett argues that charismatic leaders are, by their nature, oppressive. Unless there are abundant tangible rewards for success, individuals will grow frustrated in a firm that is dominated by a single personality. "People will stay if they can see quality clients, quality resources and the freedom to contribute to the architectural advancement of the firm," he says. "But you also want recognition and the money for doing it." Star architects are less inclined to leave if there is a set structure, a clear path through which they can progress to join the board, get the recognition and pocket the resulting cash.

His theory does seem to be borne out by what the younger firms are doing. Many of the newest outfits such as FAT Architecture and Make have consciously avoided adopting the identity of the founder.

But even if the tide has turned, there are some who will try to swim against it. Chris Darling of Darling Associates points out that there is always a temptation to hang on. "You get a talented bloke who sets up the firm, gets clients and grows throughout his career, partly on the back of his personality," he says. "Then he gets to a point in his 60s when he thinks 'what's my life going to be? A villa in Tuscany or the cut and thrust of business in London?' Most of them carry on; it's difficult to pull away." An example is Will Alsop: he does not want the name of his practice changed until he dies, retirement or not.

The one-man brands

Every succession plan has to work out what to do about the practice’s name after the main man retires. In many ways this can be the hardest part of the transition. Hang on to the name too long and it becomes irrelevant to what the practice is doing. Lose it too soon, and you may also lose all the kudos, and work, that a Foster, Rogers or Farrell brand can command.

Robin Partington, a Hamilton Associates director, says the name sums up what the practice aspires to. “Renaming and managing the succession properly is an incredibly difficult thing to do,” he says. “Unless you get it right, the practice will be blown apart. And if the staff feel that the firm’s identity has gone, they’ll go as well.”

Speculation is rife that Foster and Partners could be renamed if and when Lord Foster retires. Will Alsop, on the other hand, is adamant that he wants the Alsop name to stay even after he retires.

More subtly, the big practices have been gradually turning themselves into brands. So Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners has became Grimshaw, and Michael Hopkins and Partners has became Hopkins Architects.

But one architect says keeping the same name after its provider retires can only work for a finite period. “Not many firms can be successful a generation after the founder retires,” he says. “It’s different with an engineer or QS. Architects’ work is a reflection of the character behind it.”

The big architects, in short, should be looking at the best name to suit the new generation, and whether that means keeping “Hopkins” or “Rogers”, or a new name entirely, is less important than creating a brand. As Paul Hyett, ex-RIBA president, says, “We are moving from the signature architect to the signature brand.”

Hyett’s own practice Ryder, is attempting to do just that. Gordon Ryder died at the end of 2000, but the architect is looking to establish a known brand, rather than necessarily produce designs that emulate his style.

Norman Foster, Foster and Partners

Age 69
Practice founded Foster Associates in 1967
The succession policy “We will announce plans in December”

Richard Rogers, Richard Rogers Partnership

Age 71
Practice founded 1977, upon the completion of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Rogers designed the project with Italian star Renzo Piano
The succession policy No official word, but Goldschmied chaired the “change caucus” that identified the long-term structure of the business. A source says: “This is about letting youngsters have more say”

Nicholas Grimshaw, Grimshaw

Age 65
Practice founded Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners in 1980; renamed Grimshaw 18 months ago
The succession policy “We have a business plan in place in which we have an agreed mechanism for Nick to redistribute ownership amongst the principal directors in a more equitable ratio. We have identified the next generation of directors”

Terry Farrell, Terry Farrell & Partners

Age 65
Practice founded Farrell started up with Nicholas Grimshaw in 1965; the practice was reincorporated as Terry Farrell & Partners in 1986
The succession policy No official line. Aidan Potter and Doug Streeter left recently

Michael Hopkins, Hopkins Architects

Age 69
Practice founded In 1977 as Michael Hopkins & Partners; renamed Hopkins Architects in 2003.
The succession policy “We have a structure now in place where people who come to the practice can see a positive career route”