Julie Bargmann awarded Oberlander Prize.
By Zach Mortice
Julie Bargmann is the first recipient of the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, established by the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Known for the many students who cite her as an influence as much as for her work as the founder of D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) Studio, Bargmann is revered for remediating polluted and neglected postindustrial sites with designs that celebrate infrastructural refinement and industrial power. A master at regenerating degraded land without erasing its history, Bargmann reveals layers of strata and ruin, but also layers of narrative, granting her projects strength, performance, and a kind of raw beauty.
According to the Oberlander Prize jury, Bargmann “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.”
The award comes with a $100,000 cash prize and two years of public engagement programming focused on the laureate’s work and the importance of landscape design.
Bargmann has crawled through abandoned mines, been described in magazine headlines as “The Queen of Slag,” and worked with the EPA on design studios focused on Superfund sites. She’s known for her multidisciplinary approach, working with architects, engineers, scientists, ecologists, and artists to expand the bounds of landscape design. At Vintondale Reclamation Park (see “Coming Clean,” LAM, October 2005), Bargmann designed a passive water treatment system in western Pennsylvania coal country, diverting a stream that had been polluted by acid mine drainage and channeling it into six pools where limestone, engineered soils, and plants filtered and cleaned the water. In Philadelphia, her firm designed a campus for Urban Outfitters at a former Navy yard (see “Julie Bargmann Unexpurgated,” LAM, October 2007), largely made from materials salvaged on site: brick, rusted metal, and chunks of concrete large enough to inspire their own nicknames—Barney and Betty Rubble. It’s an approach that kept almost 1,000 cubic yards of waste out of the landfill. More recently, her design for Core City Park in Detroit (see “To the Core,” LAM, October 2020) incorporated an unearthed bank vault and pieces of a 19th-century fire station into a shaded urban grove.
Bargmann is the first-ever recipient of the Oberlander Prize, named in honor of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the pioneering landscape architect who died at age 99 in May. The Oberlander Prize, according to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, is given to recipients who are exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary and have a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.
Bargmann’s approach to practicing landscape architecture was unique when she was developing it in the 1990s, but with her sustained example and influence, it’s become a fully developed practice ethic and design language all its own. She views landscape as “one big machine,” and her work has played a signature role in tearing down false dichotomies between nature and industry, green and gray, and the “natural” and “unnatural.” Through both pedagogy and practice, Bargmann has developed a hybrid synthesis between these seemingly opposed poles, functioning within ecological constraints and lessening the inequities of the built environment. Under her example, this approach has defined yet another way to practice landscape architecture as design activism.
Other coverage of Julie Bargmann in LAM:
“Prix de Rome Winner,” June 1989, on Bargmann’s 1989–1990 Prix de Rome fellowship, and her proposal to study prehistoric built forms in Europe and examine how they might relate to contemporary environmental art practices.
“Visionary,” December 1994. Selected as part of a jury with a mandate to recognize “visionary” design, Bargmann rejected entries that were “just nice design projects, but didn’t have any content or vision to them,” giving the nod instead to works that “were pretty modest and restrained in their means and engaged the real stuff of places, versus divine intervention via design.”
“Design Culture Now,” June 2000, by Heather Hammatt, on a Cooper-Hewitt Museum exhibition that outlines the conceptual framework for what would become Bargmann’s Vintondale Reclamation Park.
“Let It Be,” December 2004, by Philip Nobel, which sketches out Bargmann’s design competition proposal for New York City’s High Line.
“Contours of Debate,” May 2015, by Timothy A. Schuler, where Bargmann explains her approach to mine reclamation practices that aid biodiversity and acknowledge site history.
“Deep Cut,” November 2015, by Zach Mortice, on the critical role Bargmann played in designing a limestone quarry turned park on the South Side of Chicago that evokes the city’s ancestral landforms.
“San Antonio Takes the Shot,” April 2017, by Jennifer Reut, about D.I.R.T. Studio and Stephen Stimson Associates’ wild, gnarly, and native Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio.
LAMCAST: Julie Bargmann’s “Toxic Beauty,” March 2021, a Bargmann lecture delivered to her alma mater, the Harvard GSD, where stigmatized landscapes emerge as tragic characters worthy of redemption.