Learn About Julie Bargmann, the Inaugural Oberlander Prize Laureate

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Learn About Julie Bargmann, the Inaugural Oberlander Prize Laureate

Learn About Julie Bargmann, the Inaugural Oberlander Prize Laureate
Oct 14, 2021

Pioneering landscape architect Julie Bargmann is internationally recognized as an innovative designer of regenerative landscapes, an influential educator, first at the University of Minnesota and since 1995 at the University of Virginia (UVA), and intellectual leader in addressing social and environmental justice. 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.” 

Bargmann, a native of Westwood, NJ, is the sixth of eight children. Her interest in industrial and toxic sites dates to her early childhood. Crammed into the family station wagon with her siblings, 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, notable for its parks and shared common spaces by landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley. 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.”

Bargmann earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master in Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (1987), and she was a Fellow in Landscape Architecture at the American Academy in Rome (1989-90).

During her time at Carnegie Mellon, Bargmann first discovered the work and writings of the influential land artist Robert Smithson as well as the revolutionary sculpture of artist Eva Hesse. Barmann recently said of Smithson, “his writings were all about … the importance of process, of digging, of finding, and also to not dismiss the landscapes.” She added, “He completely reframed …industrial landscapes, and as cultural landscapes.” While she moved away from working as a sculptor, Smithson has remained a key influence on her work and philosophy.

Bargmann enrolled at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in 1984 where her classmates included Stephen Stimson and Anita Berrizbeitia (the latter is currently Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the GSD) and one of her professors was landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. “My time at the GSD was deeply, deeply, deeply formative and just substantial,” she said, “and that came from all of the folks that were there that were really pushing the discipline.” She added, “I felt intensely post-McHargian, almost anti-design. These folks … were saying ‘make form, make form, don’t be shy, let’s go, let’s tell the world what landscape architecture is.’”

“The formation of a philosophy of my work was not easy at the GSD,” she stated, “it’s a strong place and with strong folks and when I rejected things – pretty formalist stuff – it was met with some resistance.” While at the GSD Bargmann and Stimson worked for Van Valkenburgh (“we were his first employees”) and she would continue to work for him during two stints until 1992.

At the American Academy in Rome (1989-90), Bargmann reveled in the rich interactions with fellows in ancient studies, musical composition, architecture, literature, visual arts, and other disciplines. In the real world, she said, “you have to work hard to make that happen, there it was part of life.” It offered opportunities to “talk about what landscape architecture is and what I was up to and how I looked at things” and to visit sites of the Etruscans to whom she had an “instinctual gravitation.” 

“At the academy,” she recalled, “there was a great crew, a few folks I got to be really close with, one is the painter Christopher Wool. We used to run around on his motorino named ‘Jane’ to different sites and that was interesting because Christopher really wanted me to interpret the sites for him. He had his friends come over – Cindy Sherman and Robert Gober – and so it was a pretty intense group … it was wonderful.” She also met Yvonne Levy, the Baroque scholar. “I never thought I would be friends with a Baroque scholar, me the ultimate minimalist, but we had an exchange and she said I’ll show you the churches if you bring me to the Etruscan sites.”

Following her year in Rome she returned to working for Van Valkenburgh before accepting a teaching position ar the University of Minnesota in 1992, the year she also founded D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) studio in 1992, to research, design, and build a wide range of projects. 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, and 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 opportunities to explore how to apply emerging technologies, rather than defaulting to conventional practices. She created alternatives to counter the limitations of typical remediation (defined as “correcting a fault”) by offering more dynamic modes of regeneration (or, “creating anew”). Recognizing that toxic sites become isolated by necessity but don’t go away, D.I.R.T. sought to find ways to reconnect them – physically, socially and culturally -- 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. 

In 1995 Bargmann joined the faculty at the UVA School of Architecture in Charlottesville, VA. She said, “Teaching allowed me to really experiment. I don’t know how I would have done it just through practice” and lauds the “incredible support and trust from my colleagues at UVA to really do anything I want.” In her classroom she leads investigations with students into derelict terrain, imagining renewed sites of cultural and ecological production, and the importance of a collaborative approach to design and problem solving.

Bargmann is quick to point out that “her projects” are not just her own but the product of the collective experience and intellect of architects, engineers, landscape architects, artists, ecologists, scientists, historians, preservation professionals, and other designers. The team approach to work that includes the design and construction of both built structures and landscape—the ethos that has become the norm today—was not a given when Bargmann dove headlong into the profession.

“The era of the master-architect is dead,” she declared in an extensive profile published in Metropolis magazine in 2007.  “There’s an increasing awareness of the complexity of the landscape, and architects are looking for expertise from landscape architects, engineers and ecologists who are prepared to address those complexities.”

An early project, one that put Bargmann on the map, was the Vintondale Reclamation Park, east of Pittsburgh, PA. Teaming up with artist Stacy Levy, hydrogeologist Robert Deason and historian T. Allan Comp, Bargmann designed and built a novel passive water treatment system on a 35-acre site in Pennsylvania coal country. Bargmann and her collaborators diverted a stream that was badly polluted by acid mine drainage into a series of six pools, where limestone, engineered soil and plants leeched toxins out of the water. 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.”

In June 2003, Kurt Andersen, host of NPR’s Studio 360, asked Bargmann whether she recalled the moment she became aware that “landscape architecture and big industrial sites were your métier.” She mentions the oil refineries in New Jersey she saw through the windows of the station wagon, and one other location, which she viewed from above. “I remember the first time I flew over the River Rouge plant, in Dearborn, Michigan—the Ford Motors plant—and I was [peering] out the window, and I just was, like, ‘That is so beautiful.’”

In 2000, she joined architect William McDonough in a heroic project that ultimately fulfilled the vision of Henry Clay Ford, Jr., who Bargmann quickly came to know simply as Bill. Ford was in the minority of the board members of the company that his great grandfather founded—they would have preferred to erase the toxic site, cap it with a rubber blanket and a thick layer of topsoil, and plant trees. When she joined the project, Bargmann recalls, “The Ford Motor Company was calling it ‘greening the Rouge.’ It drove me out of my mind. I just said, ‘Stop calling it that!’ It sounded like the old, ‘Oh, throw in some plants and add water and it’ll just be fine.’” With a nod to the Vintondale project, the River Rouge landscape was given shape by a robust system of phytoremediative gardens to detoxify soil that had been degraded by a century of automobile manufacturing.

At the Ford site, Bargmann says, “I felt my role as a landscape architect was to reveal how that landscape is one big machine. By looking at its processes, it could be a healthy landscape and not one that’s destructive.” The Vintondale and River Rouge projects were mere harbingers of Bargmann’s professional course. “What I have found most extraordinary in her work is the consistency of her intellectual project over the span of more than three decades,” says her former GSD classmate Berrizbeitia.

Perhaps her best-known project, the headquarters for the lifestyle retailer Urban Outfitters, unfolded over the span of ten years in the historic Philadelphia Navy Yard. 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. Bargmann recalled, “Dick Hayne the founder of Urban and I would get into a golf cart, and we would buzz around … looking for stuff … he really got into it.”

“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. 

Bargmann’s work is by no means confined by large sites. At Turtle Creek Water Works ("Pump House") in Dallas, a one-acre site with an abandoned historic pump house and 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.

More recently, Bargmann has completed two projects with developer Philip Kafka of Prince Concepts. As with Urban Outfitters, nearly everything used in the construction of the 8,000-square-foot Core City 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. The project was featured on the cover of the October 2020 issue of Landscape Architecture MagazineIn 2021, a nearby project, “The Caterpillar,” was featured in DWELLAnother project with Prince Concepts, PS1200, is under construction in Fort Worth, TX.

Over the course of her 30-plus years in the profession she has distinguished herself as a pioneer in addressing issues of environmental degradation, social inequity, and cultural neglect presented by post-industrial sites. She is known for her personal intensity, tireless work ethic, unflinching honesty, design authenticity, and not least of all, her shock of bleached blond hair and distinct sense of humor. 

Elizabeth K. Meyer, the Merrill D. Peterson Professor of Landscape Architecture at UVA, has observed of Bargmann, “she is not your typical landscape architect. Here is someone who has been fearless in identifying topics and sensibilities and practices that have not been the norm. She is in the thick of every major concern that landscape architects have been dealing with for the last thirty years, whether it’s sustainability or thinking about toxic and post-industrial sites, but her work is not following best practice. It’s blowing them up and establishing new practices that no one had imagined.”