At first I think it must be me. Maybe my interview requests aren’t getting through, or if they are, they’re too forward, or too personal, or too impersonal, or too acontextual. A friend offers to get me in touch with his friend, a MacArthur prize–winning architect, and I send him a draft of my request. I think things will go better if my email is lyrical and loose. It doesn’t; he asks me to formalize my inquiry, says this isn’t going to get past the architect’s marketing guy. So I rewrite the request, try to remind whomever’s going to be reading it of my credentials, personal and professional. I don’t get a response. I ask my friend if he’s heard anything, and after a few weeks he hasn’t, so I email the press office myself, and receive a very kind—though very firm—rejection. I try my old contacts. Rejection. I try a beloved architect/interior designer, part of a four-person New York City–based firm with its hands in pretty much everything: restaurants, bars, ranches in the Napa Valley, fashion. I ask her for comment, and she says something like, It’s so nice to hear from you but it’s just not the right time.

I try the friend of a consulting client of mine, a Mexico City–based architect who spent a week in Vermont with my client, leading a sort of advanced class for midcareer students, and I hope that my connection to our mutual friend might get me in the door. I get no response. I ask two publicists I’ve worked with since my very first byline, 15 years ago, to ask their clients, in particular a husband-and-wife team who recently finished a massive public project in Long Island City and who I know will recognize me, who I believe harbor enough goodwill towards me that they’ll respond, and a few days later I get an apologetic email response, on their behalf, that it’s not quite the right time.

I email another architect who I totally bonded with during a friendly dinner at a magazine event in San Francisco, someone who’s on the faculty at my most recent educational institution, where I just earned my Ph.D., something that I also hope will give me and my project legitimacy. No response. Still, I don’t give up. I email the assistant of a famed British architect, who I wrote about for an internationally respected design magazine, and ask if perhaps his boss might be interested in speaking with me again. I hear back the morning I’m filing this story, with a very gentle no thanks, “given the sensitive nature of the subject.”

To all these rejections, I have a response ready, but I never use it. The response I would use, if I were a different person, a more aggressive person, would be something like, “Do you think Zaha Hadid ever thought it was the right time?”

1950 Born
1977 Graduates from the AA and joins OMA
1980 Opens her architecture office in London
1983 Wins competition for the Hong Kong Peak Club
1988 Patrik Schumacher joins firm
1993 Vitra Fire Station completed, the firm’s first significant built commission
2004 Wins Pritzker Prize
2006 Zaha Hadid Design launched, collaborates with furniture designers and fashion companies
March 2016 Dies at 65 of a heart attack in Miami hospital; firm has 36 active projects in 21 countries
April 2016 Firm wins competition to build Sberbank Technopark in Moscow; announcement quotes Christos Passas, ZHA project director, and makes no mention of Hadid’s absence
November 2016 At the World Architecture Festival in Berlin, Schumacher calls for scrapping social housing and privatizing public space as a means of solving London’s affordable housing crisis
November 2016 Firm releases open letter denouncing Schumacher’s comments, writing that they do “not reflect Zaha Hadid Architects’ past—and will not be our future”
November 2016 In a leaked email, Schumacher tells staff: “Don’t worry, I am in charge and won’t let you down”
2018 Zaha Hadid Design and Odlo release sports underwear line with no mention of whether Hadid was involved; Schumacher files an application to the high Court in London to remove the three other appointed executors named in Hadid’s will
2019 Hadid-designed Beijing airport terminal scheduled to open

What I’m asking everyone to talk about is their deaths, even if they may seem far away, even if they may come with sufficient warning. In other words, I’m thinking of the opposite of how Hadid died: suddenly, unexpectedly, at the height of her career. I still get press releases from Zaha Hadid Architects; the firm announced shortly after her death that they’d keep going. Patrik Schumacher, her former second-in-command and now the sole partner, says there was a succession plan in place. But who’s really running things behind the scenes? At what point is the work no longer Hadid’s, the firm no longer an embodiment of her worldview? Schumacher has a history of writing extraordinarily contentious articles, saying extraordinarily insensitive things. As I was putting this story to bed, he filed an application to the high Court in London to remove the three other appointed executors named in Hadid’s will, essentially leaving him in charge of what is reported to be a nearly $90 million estate. Is this what Hadid would have wanted?

And so I press on. I ask my editor if it’s OK to interview some of my behind-the-scenes consulting clients. He agrees, as long as there’s full disclosure. I think, finally, I’ll get someone on the record. But when I ask my contacts to participate, they laugh nervously, and then they say, “Tell me what everyone else says,” and then when I tell them that so far no one else has said anything, they say, “Hmm, well, keep me posted—but it’s just not the right time.” I want to scream at them. I want to ask them why they think they can decide what the right time is. As I said to a border agent when I crossed into Canada to care for a sick parent earlier this year: “Death comes for us all.”

Mortal Ambiguity
There seem to be three main ways that things can go when a prominent architect dies. The practice can fold almost immediately after their death, unable to live beyond the founder’s demise, as was the case with Louis Kahn. Or the practice can morph into something different, as with Hadid, where we’re mostly left wondering how long the office can ride on its reputation. Or as with Charles Gwathmey, who died in 2009 and whose firm, Gwathmey Siegel, lives on—but not without the widespread belief that this isn’t really how Charlie would have wanted things.

1901 Born
1924 Earns his bachelor degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania
1924–1932 Works in various offices, including for Paul Philippe Cret, William Lee, and with Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary
1935 Receives first independent commission, for the Ahavath Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia
1940s Forms loose partnerships with George Howe, Oskar Stonorov, and Anne Tyng
1947 Hires David Wisdom
1961 Starts construction on Dhaka National Assembly
1965 Salk Institute completed
1971 Receives AIA Gold Medal
1973 Two of his project architects form Pellechia & Meyers
1974 Dies at 73 of a heart attack in New York Penn Station
1974 David Wisdom opens David Wisdom & Associates
1977 Yale Center for British Art, completed by Pellechia & Meyers, opens
1979 Pellechia & Meyers dissolve their firm
1982 Dhaka National Assembly building completed by David Wisdom & Associate
2003 Nathaniel Kahn’s film “My Architect” opens, shines new light on the architect’s personal and professional lives

And finally, there are the cases when there’s an infrastructure or succession plan in place that allows for a relatively seamless transition, even in the face of an unexpected passing, as with Eero Saarinen, who died suddenly, with almost no warning, in 1961 at 51. The TWA Terminal, arguably his most famous project, wasn’t finished yet (it would open a year later), and that task was left to his partners, Kevin Roche, FAIA, and John Dinkeloo; it is the argument of my dissertation that Saarinen’s wife, Aline B. Louchheim Saarinen, was instrumental in ensuring that his reputation survived intact and that the work of the office continued so seamlessly after his death. Consider also the case of James Polshek, FAIA, who was still very much alive in 2010 when Polshek Partnership was rebranded as Ennead Architects, a move that shifted the firm’s identity away from Polshek himself and towards a more collaborative one that will persevere, with or without its founder.

So why was no one willing to talk me about their succession plans? I called Jed Brubaker, an assistant professor of information science at the University of Colorado Boulder who conducts death studies research, to see if he could offer any insight. I expected him to say that it was about death denial, but he has a more nuanced take that helps explain that repeated mantra that it’s just not the right time. “There’s a difference between ‘my mortality comes later,’ versus ‘my mortality doesn’t come now,’ ” he told me. “If mortality came later, then you’d plan for it.” But if it doesn’t come now, and all we have is ambiguity, well, that would explain the resistance I’ve met. “What I encounter is not so much a denial but an uncertainty in the face of ambiguity,” he said.

He’s quick to clarify that he hasn’t studied my particular question—why professionals might be unwilling to discuss their impending deaths and what their firms should do after they die—and that he’s just offering a hypothesis. “It’s not a fear of dying,” he said. “I see people as uncertain about how to make choices.”

He tracks the cultural approach to death in the Western world through three stages: a family approach, common in the Victorian era, where the bodies of the deceased were visited before being buried; the medicalized approach, common in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, where people often died alone, in hospital rooms; and the current approach, where “people are living in the presence of death” thanks to diseases like cancer and AIDS, which can create a seemingly endless in-between stage. My friend who has cancer calls it “the gray area.” I call it life.

1910 Born
1936 Starts working with his father, Eliel Saarinen, at the firm Saarinen, Swansen, and Associates
1950 Along with Kevin Roche, launches own firm, Eero Saarinen & Associates
1951 John Dinkeloo joins ES&A
1953 Firm breaks ground on Kresge Auditorium at M.I.T.
1953 Eero meets Aline Bernstein Louchheim, who profiles him for The New York Times
1954 Marries Louchheim
1958 Ingalls Rink at Yale University opens
1959 Firm begins construction on Bell Labs in New Jersey
1961 Dies suddenly at 51 of a brain tumor
1962 Celebrated T.W.A. Terminal opens in New York; Roche and Dinkeloo complete the project
1966 Roche and Dinkeloo form Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates (KRJDA) to finish existing ES&A projects, including Dulles International Airport and CBS Headquarters in New York City
1969 Roche and Dinkeloo’s first commission without Saarinen, the Oakland Museum of California, opens
1972 Louchheim dies
1982 Roche wins Pritzker Prize
1991 Roche and Dinkeloo renovate Ingalls Rink at Yale
1993 Roche receives AIA Gold Medal
2018 KRJDA announces plans to close; Capital Crossing development in Washington, D.C., will be last project

Which brings me to the reason why I wanted to do this story. It’s not because of a particular devotion to Hadid’s memory, or a worry that what will happen to Gwathmey will happen to my practicing friends. When I was 30, a cyst in my brain ruptured, hemorrhaging blood and protein and disturbing the hypothalamic-pituitary axis. My doctors were concerned the cyst was a malignant tumor. I had an operation to rule that out, and I almost died because of a complication. Eight months after that, I had heart surgery for a congenital—and potentially fatal—condition. A few years after that, I got incredibly and mysteriously sick. I remain a well-scanned, extremely medically supervised person. If an MRI suddenly revealed something life-threatening, I would be sad, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Ever since my brain hemorrhage, I’ve felt like I’ve been a little closer to the thin veil. I live in the presence of death, and I don’t want to live here alone.

Shattering the Myth of the Solo Genius
Daniel Libeskind, FAIA, and Deborah Berke, FAIA, seem to share my openness. They are the only two architects I contacted who agreed to speak on the record for this story, and both are starting to put succession plans in place. I asked Berke why she was willing to ponder the end of her own career so calmly and forthrightly. Part of her motivation came from observing what happened to the firms of a few architects she knew well and respected, and who died without a plan. Part of her motivation is personal: Her husband, a surgeon, has been retaking his board certification every few years. The most recent test, he realized, would be his last one; soon, he will be considered too old to perform complex surgeries. And while design clients might be more enthusiastic about having a 95-year-old architect than a 95-year-old surgeon, his own calm acceptance of entering the next stage of his life prompted Berke to think about the end, whenever and however it comes, of her own career.

More importantly, part of her motivation is, while she’s still alive and practicing, to shatter the myth of the “solo genius,” by actively promoting architects at her firm to partnership status, and by sharing the responsibilities of the firm with her other employees. Berke said her office is in the middle of a restructuring, and at press time she wasn’t prepared to offer a clear outline, but assured me a plan is in active formation. “It’s much more about inclusivity, generosity, acknowledgment of the kind of atmosphere I want to have in my office,” she told me. In other words, the change is driven less by death, and more by wanting to codify and celebrate the collective nature of her practice. I asked her if she thinks about her legacy, and she said that she has one more project type she’d like to do: “I’d like to do a contemplative structure,” she said—something like a Quaker meeting house, or a nondenominational chapel. It’s a small ambition given the scope and scale of her other work, but a powerful one.

1938 Born
1956 Graduates high school, where he meets Robert Siegel
1966 With Richard Henderson, designs influential house for his artist parents on Long Island
1968 Launches firm in New York with Siegel
1969 Designs apartment for Faye Dunaway
1989 Wins AIA Firm Award
1992 Addition to Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum opens
2005 Controversial Astor Place condos built; Paul Goldberger describes project as “an elf prancing among men”
1971 Receives AIA Gold Medal
2008 Yale Art + Architecture building renovation completed
Delivers last keynote, at Miami Preservation Conference
2009 Dies at 71 of cancer
Firm’s W Hotel Hoboken opens
2011 Siegel forms Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman & Associates Architects with Gene Kaufman, who buys a majority stake in the firm
2013 Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman releases monograph titled Gwathmey Siegel Buildings and Projects 2002-2012, published by Rizzoli
2018 Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman’s website remains today

I’m delicate when I speak with Berke. I try to couch my questions by saying things like, “I know this might be a sensitive topic.” We’ve known each other for almost 15 years, and she knows some of what I’ve been through medically, so there’s a sense of low-key kinship, a type of mutual understanding. But it’s nothing compared to the spiritual level that Daniel Libeskind was willing to ascend to, within seconds of picking up the phone.

“Living is the practice of dying!” he told me, a breath into our conversation. “What makes human beings human is that they are finite, and that they are reborn again.” So what does that mean for museums or cultural institutions being designed by Studio Daniel Libeskind, should Libeskind himself embark on his next incarnation? “I always thought of my studio as an atelier and artistic practice,” he said. “There is a sense of continuity,” much of which is developed by his three partners who have worked with him for decades. He chose the word “studio,” he told me, because he didn’t want it to feel like an office, or anything corporate. Corporations require succession plans. A studio can be freewheeling, can go with the flow in the presence of death. “Families don’t end when the patriarch or matriarch dies,” he said. They just have to redefine themselves.

I asked him what would happen if—and of course I compel myself to say “god forbid”—he’s struck by lightning tomorrow (as much as I live in the presence of death, I still rely on euphemisms). “The partners are a sort of trinity,” he said. And it’s that trinity that gives him confidence that the studio would carry on—that it isn’t up to just one person to, essentially, replace him. He didn’t get into the specifics, but it seems clear he trusts them to make the kinds of decisions that would reflect his ethos. I asked if he worries about death, or what might happen to the studio. “Death is not just something negative,” he replied. “There’s an excitement about it.” He has a hybrid view, he said: “A fear of life and a fear of death.”

I thank him for participating so openly. “I think people who don’t think about it, who just fly by expediently, you can see that in the work,” he said. “If you don’t think of yourself that you’re moving towards death then you’re moving nowhere.” Of course, on the one hand, he would be arguing for a death-sensitive and death-embracing approach, given that it’s his. I recall in architecture school marveling at the idea that designers were being given a responsibility to produce forms and space that would last far beyond their own lifetimes. It was an imagined responsibility that often produced—at least for me—a certain paralysis, that made me design projects where everything changed, all the time. Why this wall and not another? Why this site and not the other? How could I choose a material in the face of the eternal?

So I became a writer, which is even more ephemeral. This article will be on desks or coffee tables for a month, and then ... gone. A version of it will die. And then, so will I. So will everyone I tried to talk to, and everyone I did talk to. Will their silence have kept them safe? Or will their openness? Maybe we’re all too focused on legacy—at least some of us anyway. What if we realized that we’re all in this together, and we’re all headed to the same place, and legacy won’t matter there? All we have is this moment, and in this moment we can care for our colleagues and let them know we’re thinking about what will happen to them after we’re gone. And maybe it’s the right time for that.

1930 Born
1955 Earns his master’s degree in architecture from Yale
1963 Forms James Stewart Polshek Architect after working for I.M. Pei, FAIA
1970 Firm renamed James Stewart Polshek and Associates
1972–1987 Serves as dean of Columbia GSAPP, adding the words “planning” and “preservation” to the school’s title
1980 Firm renamed James Stewart Polshek and Partners
1994 Firm renamed Polshek and Partners
1998 Firm renamed Polshek Partnership
2000 Collaborates with Philippe Starck on Hudson Hotel in NYC, ushering in a still-vibrant era of “design hotels”
2004 William J Clinton Presidential Library opens in Little Rock, Ark.
2005 Retires and assumes title of “design counsel”
2007 Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art opens at the Brooklyn Museum to great acclaim, wins National design Award
2008 Newseum opens in Washington, D.C.; Nicolai Ouroussoff writes in The New York Times that the design “reeks of parochialism”
2010 After a year-and-a-half long search for a new name, remaining partners rebrand firm Ennead Architects
2010 Polshek writes letter to 750 friends and associates endorsing the decision
2015 Ennead wins competition to design Shanghai Planetarium
2018 Polshek wins AIA Gold Medal
2018 Firm's current partners include Timothy Hartung, V.G. Maxwell, Kevin McClurkan, Molly McGowan, Richard Olcott, Susan T. Rodriguez, Tomas Rossant, Todd Schliemann, Peter Schubert, Don Weinreich, and Thomas Wong. Polshek, Duncan Hazard, and Joseph Fleischer are listed as emeritus.