Part of a new generation that’s risen to the helm of Terry Farrell’s practice, the 32-year-old partner explains to Richard Waite how she is playing her part in reinvigorating the 54-year-old business. Photography by Ben Blossom
‘It’s not all about me, and I don’t want it to be,’ says 32-year-old Farrells partner Shevaughn Rieck about her vision for the practice.
Ten years ago, Rieck had just returned to university having finished her Part 1 year-out at Farrells. Today, and only weeks away from having her first child, it seems she has become, in all but name, Terry Farrell’s replacement as the company’s head.
She doesn’t see it quite like that. According to her, she is just one of four partners knee-deep in delivering a brave succession plan as Farrell, the 82-year-old architectural treasure, hands over his world-famous practice to a new generation.
Rieck is adamant that she does not want to be billed as the sole heir to Farrell’s design house. As she points out, why would the company do that? It would only create an almost identical issue with succession further down the line. She wants a flatter hierarchy.
Even so, insiders confirm, she is a significant driving force in the ongoing revolution at the practice and has already been hailed as a future industry leader.
In a profession where practice seniority (and fame) often comes late in life, she is also very young. Rieck has lowered the average age of the partners to 43. Like any new public face at a firm she knows people will be looking at her and questioning her ability.
Insiders confirm she is a significant driving force in the ongoing revolution at the practice
‘It happens all the time – I have a three-month cycle with people,’ she admits. ‘I’ve been thrown in the deep end a lot. And everyone is like “What on earth…? She shouldn’t be doing that!” But it takes about three months to gain their trust and prove you can [do it] and are worthy of a seat around the table.’
She has had much more than three months to work on the succession plans. In fact, the issue seems to have been rumbling for some time.
Rieck confesses there have been a number of ‘false starts and hiccups’ along this long and tricky journey. The seeds of a handover began in earnest in 2014 when the business changed from a limited company to a limited liability partnership as it ‘moved towards a more collective ownership’.
In 2015, as the practice celebrated its 50th anniversary, fellow partner Russ Hamilton, 54, (the others are Peter Barbalov, 47, and Mike Stowell, 65) told the AJ how the studio would be moving to a flatter structure where ‘everybody shares in success’.
A further two years later the company gleefully announced the appointment of a trio of senior ‘industry leaders’. The arrivals of the new design partner and two associate partners were shown off to the press as a sign of an exciting go-getting future.
But within months, two had left while the other lasted less than two years before departing. Noises coming from within were not positive.
At one point Farrells had been a 120-strong company with a turnover of nearly £9 million. But last financial year the practice only brought in £5.3 million and had shrunk its workforce to just 63.
Farrells chelseawaterfront gg achard
Source: GG Archard
Yet Rieck is not necessarily unhappy about this. The practice has now become less unwieldy and more manageable. ‘We made the conscious decision to downsize, to shrink and stabilise and go on from there,’ she says. ‘We want to take the pressure off in terms of financial targets and [give space] to reinvent ourselves.’
In a nice turn of phrase, she describes the current set-up as a ‘start-up with a 50-year legacy’.
She has also pledged to make the company more transparent. At times, especially in terms of its business, it has been a hard-to-read company.
Candidly, she explains that the Farrells name will stay. She adds, however, that Farrell’s own involvement in schemes has already reduced significantly.
Although no official retirement date is ever likely to be set, Farrell put his flat above the studio in Edgware Road on the market for £2.5 million in the summer. And for the first time he is no longer the major shareholder.
‘What that means for the practice,’ Rieck says, ‘is that it is no longer about one person. It is about the people who are here. And it means we can give them creative freedom. We are building on what we have here.’
So how has it worked with clients? Does it bother people that Farrell won’t be designing their prize projects?
‘Clients are really not expecting him to be around [at meetings] – although some overseas clients still expect to see him,’ she says.
There is no doubt Rieck still holds Farrell in high esteem – she describes him as a ‘genius’.
Her relationship with the practice began in 2008. From Bradford Girls Grammar, where she represented the school at table tennis, she went to Newcastle University (Farrell’s alma mater) to study architecture.
Even though she only qualified in 2012, she seems unfazed by her rapid rise through the ranks
At her degree show, somebody from the practice left a business card. Rieck, who wanted to do ‘big things’ at one of the ‘big name practices’, picked up the phone, got an interview and began her Farrells career as a Part 1 assistant.
She was impressed by how she was given the chance to split her time equally between being in the studio and being on site.
One of her first jobs was drawing up a manifesto for Peabody on how it could refurbish its estates and housing stock. She then worked on the Bicester eco-town masterplan.
She says: ‘I remember Terry taking me down the street and showing me the size of a tree, because in the drawing I’d done they were all too small. He said, “Draw trees, not cabbages.” He then taught me about having 10 principles behind every masterplan.’
She then spent six months on Regent’s Place, in Euston Road – the major office building for British Land (2010) – where she was doing the ‘glamorous’ nitty gritty ‘such as snagging, raised access flooring, door schedules … all the good stuff,’ she laughs. Rieck acknowledges she is more of a deliverer than a designer.
After that she returned to do her Part 2 at Newcastle, spending a year there before jetting off for 12 months in Singapore as part of the school’s exchange system (‘Because, why not?’)
A return to Farrells was never in doubt. ‘It was an open door,’ she says, admitting she was attracted by the company’s ethos. ‘It feels like a family business,’ she adds. ‘There are great people here. There were then, there still are.’
Interestingly, until recently Farrell’s son Max – a seemingly obvious successor to his dad though not a qualified architect – had also worked at the practice. However, having risen to partner level in June he left to set up the London Collective, billed as a campaigning and advocacy ‘platform for individuals and small businesses who are experts in London’s built environment’.
From an early stage Rieck was impressed by how the senior staff had always listened to her. ‘You always had a voice. It always mattered what you had to say,’ she recalls.
Her post-Part 2 work at Farrells began with ‘running’ the basement package at Chelsea Waterfront in 2011. ‘Because they knew me from before, I was given that level of trust. I mean it was only a basement and only concrete, so there wasn’t much I could do wrong, but still a good project to work on.’
Subsequently, she rushed through her Part 3 at the Architectural Association to quickly ‘get that done’. She recalls how she was given a theoretical case study, based on the scenario of being in charge of her own practice and being handed a job by a new client.
‘I had to write them a free proposal, write a business plan for the practice, etc,’ she recalls. ‘It taught me a lot. You don’t graduate Part 2 with any idea about building contracts or procurement routes or how you’d even go about writing a fee proposal.’
Even though she only qualified in 2012, she seems unfazed by her rapid rise through the ranks. According to insiders, Rieck is known to get things done (she is apparently nicknamed ‘Shevatron’) and in her short career has already shouldered huge responsibility.
Aged 27 and still ‘just an architect’, she was selected by the client as project lead on the £250 million Chelsea Waterfront.
How did that feel? ‘Well I knew I could do it,’ says Rieck, ‘with the right support.
‘I’m not kidding myself, I didn’t know everything. But I had the right people around me to help with that.’
As part of the ‘deal’, Farrells brought an experienced aide to offer her technical support. ‘I was the face of the project, but we worked in tandem to get that over the line,’ she explains. Echoes then, perhaps, of how she is steering the ship at Farrells.
As well as being young she remains, often, the only women around the table at meetings, which is something that Rieck spins as a positive. ‘A female quality, which has often been a great asset on site and in meetings, is the ability to mediate and not shift the blame, which can often happen in a male-heavy environment,’ she says.
‘I have often acted as the voice of reason, seeking the best end result for the teams involved and, ultimately, the client.’
Rieck admits she had training about how to react to high-pressure situations and how not to retaliate.
‘You sit across the table from contractors, they tell you it is all your fault,’ she says. ‘How do you stop yourself just going “No it’s not!”’
Have there been sceptics about her meteoric rise? Not among clients nor among her peer group, she says – however, among contractors there has been a mixed response.
It is not something that worries her though, especially looking forward. She adds: ‘We are finding the industry as a whole is getting younger.’
She doesn’t have a problem with becoming a role model either. ‘If somebody can be inspired to go through the same challenges then that’s a win,’ she says.
A change in personnel and demographics also looks set to signal a shift from Farrell’s 1990 Postmodernist showstoppers to a quieter architecture.
She believes the practice has a growing social purpose and says the team is willing to challenge their clients and try to make developments more human.
For instance, she says: ‘We truly believe mid-rises are the way forward.
‘We are creating a much more humble architecture. Not architecture that screams and shouts.’ She concludes: ‘We want good design to be part of the everyday.’
Shevaughn Rieck CV
- 2008 – 2011: Part 1 student, University of Newcastle
- 2008 – 2009: Part 1 architectural assistant, Farrells
- 2010: Part 2 student, University of Singapore (exchange programme)
- 2011 – 2013: Part 2 architectural assistant, Farrells
- 2013: Part 3, Architectural Association
- 2013 – 2014: Architect, Farrells
- 2014 – 2015: Senior architect, Farrells
- 2015 – 2017: Associate, Farrells
- 2017: Partner, Farrells