She collects toxic waste landfills, and she just won a grand prize for landscape architecture

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A desolate parking lot filled with weeds and debris has been transformed into Core City Park in Detroit, Michigan. Almost everything that was used in the construction of the park was found locally – the benches, for example, were recycled from old concrete walls. (Prince Concepts and The Cultural Landscape Foundation.)

Landscape architecture never quite got the adulation of Capital-A architecture, but maybe a new award can help change that – especially since it goes to a innovative designer who has been respectfully dubbed “the toxic beauty queen of brownfield remediation”.


The first winner of the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize is Julie Bargmann, professor at the University of Virginia and founder of a studio called DIRT – Dump It Right There. The award, announced today by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, is intended to confer Pritzker Architecture Prize status, as well as a similar scholarship – $ 100,000 for the winner.

Bargman is funny, tough, committed environmentalist, and, well, feminine. The selection challenges old perceptions of landscape architecture as a stifling, male-dominated, service-oriented profession. Rather than designing gardens for stately mansions, Bargmann tackles poison dumps, Superfund sites, and wasteland she gleefully describes as “gnarly.”

“The most knotty!” exclaimed Bargmann in an interview with NPR. “The more knotty, the better.”

Born in New Jersey, Bargmann is no stranger to industrial sites. She redesigned abandoned train stations and quarries, landfills, abandoned factories and coal mines. In Detroit, she redeveloped an urban wooded area around an apartment complex using Quonset huts in designs inspired by John Coltrane’s score “Supreme Love.”

Maurice cox was head of Detroit’s planning and development department at the time (he currently holds the same position in Chicago). He remembers when Bargmann started another project in Detroit on what appeared to be a vacant parking lot.

Core City Park under construction in Detroit, Michigan. The design added green spaces and new local businesses to a struggling trade corridor. (Prince Concepts and The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

“Julie has a classic notion that all sites have a story,” he told NPR. “She asked the developer to get a backhoe and start digging in the dirt, to uncover the foundations of a farm that once resided on this land. And she scratched and scratched and used the foundation of that old house as part of the park, and come in and plant dozens and dozens of trees. And, you know, a whole urban place has been created. And Julie would tell you it was already there. All she had to do was dig it up.

The founding of Core City Park in Detroit. (Prince Concepts and The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Cox describes Bargmann as a visionary thinker whose life’s work revolves around finding the beauty that exists in marginal communities that respects and honors these places. “And that puts them at the center of public discourse on landscape architecture,” he adds.

Julie Bargmann, winner of the 2021 Oberlander Prize (Barrett Doherty / The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

“It’s not often that people who work on the fringes are recognized for their singular kind of genius, certainly not during their lifetime and certainly not at a point in their career when they have many years of influence,” Cox says. about Bargmann. to win. “So it’s a smart decision on the part of this jury. If you’re trying to establish the primacy of that price, you do it, you know, causing a bit of a shock to the discipline.

In the jury quote, Bargmann is described as follows: “She was a provocateur, a critical practitioner and a public intellectual. She embodies the kind of activism required of landscape architects at a time of severe environmental challenges and persistent social inequities.

Combination of activism and architecture gives new form to abandoned places

Dealing with such inequalities and poisoned junk spaces can be a melancholy endeavor, admits Bargmann. But she responds to the demands of her work with artistic optimism and engineering precision. (In the other direction too.)

In the former mining community of Vintondale, Pa., The designer used a passive treatment system to transform a toxic area into a public space for art and recreation.

“I always call it an eco-friendly washing machine because that’s what it is,” she says. “And so, you know, the liquid goes through the wetlands and then it’s released back into the creek. Basically what we’re doing is preventing the acid mine drainage from going into that creek and washing it out. So that was it amusing. “

Bargmann resists how these landscapes can end up being the object of a voyeuristic urban aesthetic – inevitably referred to as “ruin porn”.

And she is quick to admit that while nicknames like “Milkmaid Queen” can be catchy, a strong puff of sexism is involved. “I’m going to get calls and have to say, are you interested in the helmet chick?” Or are you interested in the job? she says.

The work only spreads. In a statement from the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Bargmann says that while she will continue to reclaim individual sites, she is increasingly drawn to larger canvases. “Namely, cities and post-industrial regions,” she said. “There is enormous potential and sublime beauty in places that may at first glance appear to be trashed. Sites, neighborhoods, entire cities – they are full of energy waiting to be recognized, released and given a new shape.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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