Robert Turner arrived at Virginia Tech to study architecture having never been on an airplane, but that soon changed. A year in, he participated in a program that sent students to Austria, Italy, and Greece to experience different cultures and types of architecture.
“It was fantastic,” said Turner, who grew up in Martinsville, Va., about two hours away from Virginia Tech.
It turned out to be just the first of many architecture-related trips abroad for him, though he would later travel to design buildings, not just study them.
A couple years after graduating in 1972, Turner joined the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the world’s largest architectural firms. Before long, he was working on international projects.
Turner made partner at SOM by his mid-30s. High-profile projects he led included the Atlantico Pavilion in Lisbon, Portugal, and master plans for the University of Malaysia and the financial district at Canary Wharf in London.
He retired from SOM at age 50, but not from architecture. After leaving, Turner was busy designing the home near Blacksburg, Va., where he still lives part of the year, when a developer he knew suggested they enter two design competitions for buildings in Paris.
“We won both of them, so at that point I just got a flat in Paris and I’ve been living there [part of the year] ever since.”
When asked what he enjoys about designing buildings or development plans, Turner replied, “Anything complex is fun.”
At the time, he was working on an appropriate project for someone with such an outlook: an eight-story building that will span 50 meters of active railroad tracks in Paris.
The tracks made it impossible to dig a traditional foundation at the site. Turner designed a truss to wrap around the structure two stories above the ground and bear much of the building’s weight. Only six comparatively small building columns will have to touch the ground. For this project and several others in Paris, Turner partnered with the Arte Charpentier architecture firm.
“I do the concept design and work with them on the design development, and they do the construction documents, the planning dossier,” Turner said.
Turner said he tries to come to each project with an open mind. Instead of imposing a signature look on his projects, he is guided by the situation that has created demand for a building, as well as local building methods.
For example, he drew his inspiration for his award winning Atlantico Pavilion in Lisbon from the key role the structure was to play in a world’s fair that took place around the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama.
“You enter and the entire ceiling is made out of timber,” Turner said. “The whole concept of doing that was to make a reference to the timber ships of the time, the inside of the hull of a ship.”
Turner said his first trip abroad was a tremendously important experience in his development as an architect. Another such experience, he said, was his first job out of college, assisting the architectural photographer Ezra Stoller. The position allowed Turner to spend days inside buildings designed by some of the world’s most renowned architects or firms, including Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, Richard Meier, I.M. Pei, and SOM.
For an architect, being able to tour notable buildings, rather than just study them from books or plans, is extremely valuable, said Turner. He believes his travel experience, both domestic and abroad, was one of the reasons SOM hired him. While interviewing, he showed photographs he took in Guatemala. He was sent to work on the Banco de Occidente in Guatemala City soon after being hired.
“At one point at SOM,” Turner said, “I and a technical person were responsible for hiring. If a kid came for an interview, the first question I would ask was where they had traveled, and if they hadn’t there was no way they would get a job with us.”
Turner does more than recommend that aspiring architects travel; he makes it possible for them to do so at his alma mater, where he has also served on the advisory council for the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
In 2004, Turner established a scholarship that every other year sends a student from the School of Architecture + Design to a summer program at Fontainebleau, a UNESCO world heritage site near Paris. He has also supported a new program for students to study in Cairo, and is a member of the university’s Ut Prosim Society for especially generous donors, as well as the Legacy Society for those who make planned gifts.
Learn more about Robert Turner’s work abroad through this photo gallery.
Nicole Cavanaugh of Washington, D.C., earned her bachelor’s in architecture from Virginia Tech 2005 and was the first recipient of the Robert Turner Fontainebleau Study Abroad Scholarship.
Now a designer with the cg+s firm, she said the scholarship “really had a profound impact on my work and my path after graduation,” and added that “I feel very honored to have had this opportunity, and I hope to be able to pass that gift on someday.”
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