Julie Bargmann is the inaugural recipient of the Cornelia Oberlander prize, an international biennial award created by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in honor of the late landscape architect. From the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Visitors Center to Vitondale Park in Pennsylvania, Bargmann is celebrated for remediating neglected, often postindustrial parts of cities, and transforming them into new community spaces full of life.
She is the founder of D.I.R.T. (“Dump It Right There”) Studio and also professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia. RECORD senior news editor Bridget Cogley reached out to Bargmann to discuss her work.
Why do you focus on revitalizing formerly industrial sites and heavily polluted areas through regenerative landscape design? How did you get started?
My Jersey-girl instincts led me into troubled landscapes. As a kid, my family drove past the refineries on the New Jersey Turnpike. I loved them, visually, but then, as I got older, I began thinking about them also socially and environmentally, and thinking about the people who lived downwind and downstream.
Later, after grad school, I took a road trip. When I arrived in Minnesota as an assistant professor, I couldn’t help but turn my gaze northward to the mining Iron Range. I had to see it. So I converted research money into an investigative road trip, Project D.I.R.T., and I embarked on the project’s first national-scale exploration of several types of mines across the U.S. This led to creating my practice, D.I.R.T. Studio.
I see a connection between your work and that of pioneering woman landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, who died earlier this year at age 99. Can you speak to this?
If you are talking about being a woman in our field, you might say that I am the first woman working in the contaminated United States. And, as for Cornelia, it took a lot of perseverance and savvy, smarts, and strength. When white men are the predominant decision-makers in polluting industries, it took showing them alternatives to keep them from doing more harm.
What do you plan to do with the $100,000 prize from TCLF?
The foundation has asked that the recipient of the Oberlander Prize organize some outreach, and, though I’m not sure what that will encompass yet, I like getting out into the field. I think I will go to different “fallow” cities—those industrialized, depopulated cities. I’d gather decision-makers, like mayors and planning staff, young landscape architects, and residents, and have some field-based work sessions. I also plan to rejuvenate my studio into what I call D.I.R.T. Studio 2.0.
What current projects are you working on that you are particularly excited about?
The Core City neighborhood in Detroit has stolen my heart. Talk about fallow land! The developer there gets it. He gets how the landscape is the soul of any housing or commercial buildings.
What are some of the main lessons you impart to your students at UVA? Have you seen students’ priorities and concerns change in recent years?
If you go to an industrial site, don’t lick anything. Really, my students have learned about industrial processes and their social and environmental consequences. They know that the cultural value of these landscapes is what they can be champions of. From across the country, I have heard from former students saying they never look at industrial sites the same way again. And they know they can do something about them.
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