Julie Bargmann wins global Oberlander Prize with $100,000 award
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Julie Bargmann wins global Oberlander Prize with $100,000 award
Turtle Creek Water Works, Dallas, TX, 2021. Photo © Barrett Doherty, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Cultural Landscape Foundation today announced that Julie Bargmann is the winner of the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize (“Oberlander Prize”). The biennial Oberlander Prize, which includes a $100,000 award, two years of public engagement activities focused on the laureate’s work and landscape architecture more broadly and is named for the late landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, is bestowed on a recipient who is “exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary” and has “a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.” The Oberlander Prize Jury Citation notes of Bargmann: “She has been a provocateur, a critical practitioner, and a public intellectual. She embodies the kind of activism required of landscape architects in an era of severe environmental challenges and persistent social inequities.”

Bargmann, a native of Westwood, NJ, is a Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, and the founder of D.I.R.T. (“Dump It Right There”) studio. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master in Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (1987). In 1989-90 she was a Fellow in Landscape Architecture at the American Academy in Rome.

The Oberlander Prize Jury met virtually in June, July and August 2021 to select the inaugural laureate, due to the global novel coronavirus pandemic and the necessity for social distancing. According to Dorothée Imbert, Chair of the seven-person international Oberlander Prize Jury, qualities that made Bargmann stand out include: “her leadership in the world of ideas, her impact on the public landscape, her model of an activist practice, and her commitment to advancing landscape architecture both through teaching and design.” As Bargmann has said of herself: “The two ends of my barbell are designer-artist and political animal.”

For more than thirty years as a teacher and a landscape architect, Julie Bargmann has principally focused on contaminated, neglected, and forgotten urban and post-industrial sites. According to Bargmann: “Unearthing the raw ingredients of design from waste and wastelands defines my life’s work. Both the pedagogy of my teaching and my methodology as a designer address the social and ecological imperatives to reclaim degraded land. Integrating regenerative technologies with design propositions and built landscapes embodies my contribution to the discipline of landscape architecture.” Since she started teaching and founded D.I.R.T. studio, she has created alternatives to counter the limitations of typical remediation (defined as “correcting a fault”) by offering more dynamic modes of regeneration (or, “creating anew”).

For many of her recent projects, Bargmann and D.I.R.T. have acted as the conceptual design lead, working with other experts throughout the planning and design process, and sticking with many projects through construction. Multi-disciplinary collaborations with architects, historians, engineers, hydrogeologists, artists, and, most importantly, the residents of the area in which she is working, are hallmarks of Bargmann’s approach (see Built Works page for project collaborators). Artistically, she is strongly influenced by the work and writings of Robert Smithson, the American artist known for his land art installations including Spiral Jetty, and the American artist Eva Hesse. Bargmann describes her approach as “rigorous intuition or intuitive rigor.”

Her interest in industrial and toxic sites dates to her early childhood. Crammed into the family station wagon with her seven brothers and sisters, she was transfixed by the refineries and other industrial complexes visible from the New Jersey Turnpike. Bargmann was also taken with the design of the planned community of Radburn in Fair Lawn, NJ, by landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley, notable for its shared common spaces. Of Radburn’s “collective backyard” Bargmann said: “Maybe that’s where I got one of those first moments of feeling that design made a place inclusive.”

While at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (1984-87), Bargmann and classmate Stephen Stimson worked for landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh (“we were his first employees,” she recently said). She would go on to work for Van Valkenburgh over two stints until 1992, the year she began teaching at the University of Minnesota and founded D.I.R.T. studio.

Bargmann first tested her design and teaching approaches through her work at mining and manufacturing sites. While at the University of Minnesota, she created “Project D.I.R.T.” and spent months examining mines in Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. As she has noted: “I studied and sometimes literally crawled through mining and manufacturing sites, many of them defunct. I wanted to see how they were being treated, and in most cases, I disagreed with what I witnessed. Restrictive reclamation policies, uninspired remediation practices, and shallow readings of former working sites—I became openly critical of all these things but was also inspired by them. They instilled in me the desire to offer design alternatives and led me to create experimental studios.” According to Bargmann: “That’s when I started to be angry about how the mines and the people who work there, past and present, were being treated.”

Bargmann also collaborated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on design studios focused on twelve Superfund sites, including Avtex Fibers in Front Royal, VA, Roebling Steel (site of the design and manufacturing of parts for the Brooklyn Bridge) in Roebling, NJ, that needed help with planning and design. Every site provided a lesson in looking at how to apply emerging technologies, rather than defaulting to conventional practices. Toxic sites become isolated by necessity but don’t go away, so D.I.R.T. sought to find ways to reconnect them to adjacent neighborhoods. Bargmann has consistently operated with the theory that industrial and social histories combine to create the connective tissue that reforms and revitalizes communities.

Bargmann has been with the University of Virginia since 1995 and cites the “incredible support and trust from my colleagues at UVa to really do anything I want.” She added: “Teaching allowed me to really experiment. I don’t know how I would have done it just through practice.”

Selected Projects

• Vintondale Reclamation Park, Vintondale, PA (1995-2002): A 35-acre site in Pennsylvania coal country at which Bargmann teamed up with collaborators to design of a natural filtration system to address years of pollution from mine runoff. It was here that Bargmann became conscious of the range of potential clients—private corporations, private property owners, federal and municipal agencies—and how she could strategically educate them about alternative approaches to their projects and insure there were always benefits for the local community and for the larger ecosystem. Called “Acid Mine Drainage and Art: Testing the Waters,” this model of bioremediation was featured in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial where the New York Times cited it as “one of the best” projects. It earned Bargmann the 2001 National Design Award by Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum and was the sole work of landscape architecture featured in 2002 at Documenta, the influential contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany ("my proudest art moment"). According to Bargmann: “Vintondale is the project that I feel launched D.I.R.T. and still defines its trajectory.”

Collaborators: historic preservationist T. Allan Comp, hydrologist Bob Deason, sculptor Stacy Levy

• Turtle Creek Water Works ("Pump House"), Dallas, TX (2002): An abandoned historic pump house with large reservoirs that once supplied the neighborhood’s water became a deconstructed residential garden through the recycling of the entire site. It is a transformation of the industrial into the artistic, incorporating original mechanical equipment, gears, and valves, as well as elements of sustainable design, and the strategic use of water. The design process was one of restraint with each decision being, as the client requested, light on the site resulting in the reuse of the original building materials and the inclusion of native plant materials that is both a private residential commission and an arts center.

Collaborators: Turning Leaf landscape contractors, Blue Rock Construction general contractors

• Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the U.S. Navy Yard, Philadelphia, PA (2005-14): Encompassing nine acres of the Navy Yard’s Historic Core, this campus with huge brick buildings centered around a battleship-sized dry dock. Starting with the rough, working site as the inspiration, the project became a model for the artistic and ecologically sound reuse of materials, including concrete chunks nicknamed Barney and Betty Rubble, as well as brick, rusted metal and other materials. The salvaging strategy obviated the need for imported materials and kept nearly a thousand cubic yards of waste from being landfilled. Miles of buried railroad tracks were unearthed and informed the layout and routes for pedestrian pathways. “The URBN campus expands the client’s aesthetic pursuit of material reinvention to establish a broader capacity for ecological performance,” said the jury upon bestowing the project with an American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award. “With the Yard’s expanses of concrete and asphalt reused on-site, nearly a thousand cubic yards of waste didn’t make it to a landfill and site perviousness was increased by about eight hundred percent.”

Collaborators: Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, architects; Advanced GeoServices, Corp., engineers; Blue Wing Environmental, environmental engineers

• Core City Park, Detroit, MI (2019): One of several projects Bargmann has undertaken with developer Philip Kafka of Prince Concepts. As with Urban Outfitters, nearly everything used in the construction of the 8,000-square-foot park was unearthed on the site, including pieces of a demolished late-19th century fire station, the walls of a bank vault, and other excavated artifacts. It’s an urban woodland with clearings and groves that allow visitors to break away from the city without leaving it.

Collaborators: Developer Kafka, Architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, project manager Randy Pardy

Additional projects: Sahara West Library and Museum, Las Vegas, NV (1992); MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA (1997); Evanston Round House & Rail Yards, Evanston, WY (1998); Ravenswood Quarry Winery, Sonoma, CA (1999); Ford River Rouge Plant, Dearborn, MI (2000); Palmisano (Stearns Quarry) Park, Chicago, IL (2002); Antioch Community Park, Antioch, IL (2002); Holy Cross Community Housing, New Orleans, LA (2006); Green Belt, Durham, NC (2007); MGM City Center, Las Vegas, NV (2007); Zilber Park at The Brewery, Milwaukee, WI (2008); Hardberger Park at Voelcker Farm, San Antonio, TX (2008-13); Four Mile Run, Arlington, VA (2009, 20017); Brooklyn Navy Yard Visitors Center, Brooklyn, NY (2010); Marine Corps Recruitment Depot Living Machine, San Diego, CA (2011); Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Expansion, Milton, DE (2012); Ferrous Foundry Park, Lawrence, MA (2014); The Caterpillar, Detroit, MI (2021); PS1200, Fort Worth, TX (completion scheduled for 2022).

Today, her intellectual and academic pursuits are expanding. While still interested in and compelled by individual sites, “I’m increasingly drawn to seek a larger canvas, namely, post-industrial cities and regions,” Bargmann says. “There exists massive potential and sublime beauty in places that may seem, at first blush, to be trashed. Sites, neighborhoods, entire cities—they are full of energy waiting to be recognized, released, and given new form.”

In “Justice from the Ground Up” from the book The Just City Essays - 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusion and Opportunity, Bargmann wrote:

Soil contamination is a baseline condition for most of the sites I’ve worked on … The toxic imprint derives from industry—steel production, shipbuilding, fabrication of automobile and machine parts, to name just a few—in both urban and rural settings. But it also comes from lead-containing gasoline and paint, banned long ago but still quietly wreaking havoc. It’s a byproduct of the human pursuit of greater material wealth and a more convenient and comfortable life. In other words, it’s the legacy of progress, for better or worse.

The “better or worse” part is vitally important to me. I can say that with certainty, thanks to hindsight and 30 years of academic and professional experience. I didn’t grow up with the term “environmental justice,” which came into use in the 1980s to describe, in part, the unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of progress. But I now know what a growing body of research shows: in the United States there’s a disturbing overlap between the maps showing where poor people and ethnic minorities live, and where contaminated soils exist.

Social justice—and soil remediation—must be built into the foundation of a just city.

All of Bargmann’s built works will be added to TCLF’s What’s Out There® database, which currently features more than 2,300 sites, 12,000 images, and 1,100 designer profiles, and she will be the subject of a forthcoming Pioneers of American Landscape Design® video oral history. Accompanying this announcement are also videos including: an interview with Bargmann and colleagues Maurice Cox, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, City of Chicago, and Elizabeth K. Meyer, Merrill D. Peterson Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture and chair of the Oberlander Prize Advisory Committee, and Oberlander Prize Curator John Beardsley; interviews with four jurors from the seven-person international Oberlander Prize Jury – Dorothée Imbert, chair, Tatiana Bilbao, Gina Ford, and Walter Hood; and videos about three seminal projects.

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