Julie Bargmann Wins Inaugural Oberlander Prize

John Hill
14. October 2021
Core City Park Detroit, MI, Spring 2021. (Photo courtesy Prince Concepts and The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Julie Bargmann, founder of D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) studio, has been named the winner of the first Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, a biennial award initiated by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF).

In today's announcement, TCLF president and CEO Charles Birnbaum describes inaugural laureate Julie Bargmann as "a provocateur and innovator." The seven-member jury* agrees with the sentiment, saying in their citation: "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."

The Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize was established by TCLF in 2019 as a $100,000 biennial award recognizing "a living practitioner, collaborative or team for their creative, courageous, and visionary work in the field of landscape architecture." It is named for Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the famed Canadian landscape architect who died earlier this year at the age of 99. Over the summer the jury met virtually, for obvious reasons, to select the inaugural laureate.

Julie Bargmann, 2021 Oberlander Prize laureate. (Photo © Barrett Doherty, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

In selecting Bargmann — a landscape architect who has focused on contaminated and neglected post-industrial sites, who describes herself as a "designer-artist and political animal," and, at 63, still has decades of practice in her — the jury is setting a tone for future Oberlander Prizes: recognizing a landscape architect whose work is highly relevant to contemporary situations; and shifting away from a focus on lifetime achievement awards, as other large-dollar prizes in design fields tend toward.

The jury further stated that the particular qualities of Bargmann that made her 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." Bargmann is Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is founder and principal of D.I.R.T., "a critical design practice" also based in Charlottesville.

Core City Park Detroit, MI, Spring 2021. (Photo courtesy Prince Concepts and The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Bargmann attended Carnegie Mellon University, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture, and then Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where she earned a Master in Landscape Architecture in 1987. Following the latter degree she worked for landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, was a Fellow in Landscape Architecture at the American Academy in Rome, and then taught at the University of Minnesota, where she founded D.I.R.T. in 1992. In 1995 she joined the faculty of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.

While at the University of Minnesota and visiting mines in Midwestern and Western states, Bargmann started to developed her firm's approach. "I studied and sometimes literally crawled through mining and manufacturing sites," Bargmann has said, "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."

Urban, Outfitters, Philadelphia, PA, 2021, Julie Bargmann landscape architect. (Photo © Charles A. Birnbaum, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Even though Bargmann articulates the work of D.I.R.T. as regeneration ("creating anew") rather than the more familiar remediation ("correcting a fault"), an important early project is Vintondale Reclamation Park in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, which the studio started in 1995 and was completed in 2004. There, on a 35-acre site ravaged by years of polluted mine runoff, the studio "joined an interdisciplinary team of artists, designers, scientists, and historians with local communities, watershed groups, and state and federal agencies, to collaborate on a model redevelopment initiative for post-coal mining regions," per D.I.R.T.'s website. A natural filtration system was implemented on the site, "with a focus on making remediation processes visible in a new public park." The project earned Bargmann and the studio numerous accolades, including a National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, and determined the studio's path forward: "Vintondale is the project," said Bargmann, "that I feel launched D.I.R.T. and still defines its trajectory."

Turtle Creek Water Works, Dallas, TX, 2021. (Photo © Barrett Doherty, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

A few years later and in a similar vein to Vintondale, Bargmann worked on transforming the former Stearns Quarry in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood into Henry C. Palmisano Park, which opened in 2009. The former limestone mine was excavated from the 1830s to 1970, ultimately reaching a depth of 380 feet, and subsequently it was used as a landfill for construction debris. Instead of filling the hole entirely and placing a park on top of it, D.I.R.T. (with Chicago's Site Design Group) proposed high and low areas across the 27-acre site: quarry walls are exposed at the northern end of the park, where stepped gardens treat water leading to a pond safe enough for fishing, while a "giant ziggurat" of mounded landfill sits to the south, giving residents of Bridgeport distant skyline views of the Loop. This writer, having visited Palmisano Park and considered it a highlight of a trip to Chicago in 2014, finds it hard not to agree with the jury that Julie Bargmann is a fitting recipient of the inaugural Oberlander Prize.

Palmisano Park, aka Stearns Quarry Park, Chicago, 2009. (Photo: John Hill/World-Architects)
*The seven-member Oberlander Prize jury and prize curator:

  • Dorothée Imbert (Chair), the Hubert C. Schmidt ’38 Chair in landscape architecture and is the Director of the Knowlton School at The Ohio State University.
  • Tatiana Bilbao, an architect whose eponymous practice in Mexico City aims at integrating social values, collaboration and sensitive design approaches to architectural work.
  • Michel Desvigne, a landscape architect internationally renowned for his rigorous and contemporary designs and for the originality and relevance of his research work.
  • Gina Ford, a landscape architect, co-founder and principal of Agency Landscape + Planning.
  • Teresa Gali-Izard, Professor and Chair of Being Alive, at the Department of Architecture ETH Zurich, and a principal of ARQUITECTURA AGRONOMIA, a practice based in Barcelona, Spain.
  • Walter Hood, the Creative Director and Founder of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, California.
  • Aki Omi​, founder + creative director @ office ma.
  • John Beardsley (Oberlander Prize Curator), the author of numerous books on contemporary art and design, including Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape and Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists.

Hear From Julie Bargmann, the Oberlander Prize Laureate, and Others
Visit the TCLF website for more information on Julie Bargmann, the winner of the 2021 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize that "includes a US$100,000 monetary award and two years of public engagement activities focused on the work of the laureate and landscape architecture more broadly."

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