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The Landscape Healer

Bargmann's work is changing the way we think about site remediation.


By Jenna M. McKnight

Julie Bargmann transforms sites ravaged by industry into vibrant, welcoming spaces that she calls regenerative parks. The unconventional  landscape designer teaches at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture and is founder of D.I.R.T. studio. She has received a coveted National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and was named one of the world’s top 100 innovators by Time magazine. We recently asked Bargmann about her design philosophy, her teaching approach, and her unique perception of beauty. 

Julie Bargmann
Photo @ Stephanie Gross
Julie Bargmann
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Greensource:  In 1992, you founded the small design studio D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There), based in Charlottesville, Va. What type of work do you do?

Julie Bargmann: D.I.R.T. started out as an academic research project investigating the reclamation of mined lands, which fed my obsession with the post-industrial landscape. The practice continues to be based in design research, applying the regenerative technologies that are rapidly expanding. Along with projects on former working sites, we are increasingly involved with new developments to help instill some environmental integrity and social relevance, and, oh yeah, beauty.  
GS: You once said that turning derelict industrial sites into golf courses and parking lots was like putting “lipstick on a pig.” Why is D.I.R.T. studio opposed to this form of reclamation? On a related note, why do you believe so strongly in preserving the cultural and environmental history of an industrial site?

JB: So called “cleaning up” of sites often involve covering up or hauling away not just the contaminants, but also the history of the site. Many of the conventional methods of remediation are easy means toward land uses such as golf courses and parking lots that usually erase or camouflage the industrial past. I think that dispensing with a site’s history is robbery. All of the site’s histories—natural, social and industrial—are that landscape’s voice. With some post-industrial sites’ labor history dating well over a century, erasure or camouflage also robs the associated community’s voice. The industrial traces one finds, considered detritus by some, contain the memories, the story of that place. Keeping them is not about some romantic or nostalgic notion. Instead, their presence, along with new layers of interpretation and occupation, allows the evolution of the site histories to continue and for a community’s association with that place to stay alive.

GS: You recently helped convert part of a former Navy yard in Philadelphia into the corporate headquarters for the hip retailer Urban Outfitters. Can you give us an example of how D.I.R.T. preserved the site’s history?

JB: We ferreted out historic traces as design fodder, not allowing any of them to remain covered or “hogged and hauled” to a landfill. Because we believe in salvage strategies, a major percentage of the busted-up building materials were reused. The smaller pieces of concrete, asphalt, and brick were crushed into calico-colored aggregate mulch we call “Betty Rubble,” while the larger chunks of concrete were lovingly reset into a paving pattern named “Barney Rubble.”

GS: Newness and attractiveness have tremendous value in American culture. How do you convince your clients and the general public to see the beauty in post-industrial landscapes? Do old factories and mines have aesthetic appeal? 

JB: Making the decision to value a post-industrial site’s aesthetic is appreciating its beauty in the full sense of the word—both the visual and the emotional. At D.I.R.T. we have found two ways to pose this question of what we value as industrial-strength beauty. One is to present the palette of industrial traces not as debris, but as material to transform. Many other designers or developers present only the pretty palettes; they don’t even give a client or community a chance to consider the potential beauty of the industrial landscape.

As I said in my earlier response, we tell the stories of the hard-working people and the ambitious processes that took place. If they want to rob a site of its history, of its beauty, well, that’s their decision.

GS: You started garnering attention in the 1990s for “Testing the Waters,” a project that entailed transforming a deserted Pennsylvania coal mine into a public park. What was the remediation strategy?

JB:  This collaboration was spearheaded by the historian T. Allan Comp who assembled a multidisciplinary team of artists, designers, hydrologists, and engineers to conceptualize a community-based initiative addressing acid mine drainage (AMD), a deadly liquid laden with heavy metals that kills life forms in thousands of miles of waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania. The former mining town of Vintondale was identified as the perfect place to test our passive treatment system for AMD. The system is essentially a giant ecological washing machine; a series of basins filter the drainage, raising the pH and causing the metals to fall out.

GS: You have a degree in sculpture from Carnegie-Mellon University and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Today, you teach at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, where you encourage your students to become “design citizens.” What does this mean?

JB:  Actually, I used to think it was enough to inspire students to be design citizens, to realize that their work is more than just formal design that solves problems for a client who often oversimplifies the complexities of the landscape. Increasingly, as the projects at D.I.R.T. get further into social and political arenas, I encourage the next generation of designers to be “design activists,” which means they need to take a position, and strive in their work to address the broader issues of a project’s context. As designers, we need to be catalysts, to make places that set positive environmental and social processes into motion.

GS: Do you see your work as similar in anyway to the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the Central Park architect who championed the idea of public parks?

JB: Dead Fred lives. And so does Robert Smithson.


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This article appeared in the October 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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