Succession or Finale?

Long-term planning gives architects an opportunity to rethink ownership models

Succession or Finale?
The Richardson Olmsted Campus in Buffalo, New York. Stephen Brockman, now a principal and owner of the recently renamed TenBerke, lead the project. Photo: Christopher Payne

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Five years ago, writer and critic Eva Hagberg was having trouble getting architects on the phone. She had been thinking about the sudden death of Zaha Hadid, in 2016, and her own health issues, and wanted to speak with architecture-firm founders about succession planning. The vast majority of responses to her inquiries: “It’s not the right time.”

Hagberg rightly asked: when is the right time? Today, an increasing number of firms, at varying scales and in both North America and Europe, are grappling with this question. Here in Toronto, for example, KPMB announced a newly expanded leadership group in August 2021 by emphasizing evolution and collaboration.

Deborah Berke, the New York–based architect and educator, was one of two founders to speak to Hagberg on the record. Then working through a restructuring, she said: “It’s much more about inclusivity, generosity, acknowledgment of the kind of atmosphere I want to have in my office.” The results of that process were announced a few months later, when the firm elevated eight principals to partner, then broadened in 2023 when the company rebranded as TenBerke.

Port House in Antwerp, Belgium, one of the first Zaha Hadid Architects projects completed after Hadid’s death. Photo: Dmitry Rukhlenko/Alam

It makes sense that Berke, as both an educator and an architect committed transforming existing buildings, would address issues around longevity and operational sustainability. But such succession planning is always complex; controversy surrounding Hadid’s estate and practice dragged on for years. And the larger the firm, the harder it can be to make changes. As a service business subject to changes in the broader economy, operational conservatism can be masked as a preservation instinct. That makes these transitions unique opportunities to rethink more than just how to honor a founder’s design legacy. Equally important are questions about ownership, decision-making, and management. Those conversations can be made thorny by each generation’s differing expectations. But, taken seriously, leadership transitions are unique opportunities to think structurally, and to join the increasing number of firms restructuring to be employee-owned or cooperatives.

Jed Brubaker, an academic who conducts death studies research, said to Hagberg: “It’s not a fear of dying. I see people as uncertain about how to make choices.” If it’s time to make one difficult decision, why not make several? Like the Grand Shrine of Ise, in Japan, which is rebuilt every twenty years, the longest-lasting firms may be those that are open to the most dramatic change.

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