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Following is an interview from

D.I.R.T. Studio

I like to think that Julie Bargmann fights the good fight. She grew up cruising through the New Jersey Turnpike, under powerlines, past the oil refineries and through America's dumping ground, The Meadowlands. Now she dedicates her research and practice, D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) Studio, to taking on abandoned railyards, closed quarries and landfills, disused factories and former coal mines. And with more than half a million contaminated sites in the US alone, there's a strong argument for remediating what's been used, rather than sprawling out and building new. Her practice is a critical one, which means there's no erasing the evidence. Instead, she works to transform the waste produced by a century of manufacturing and consumption into something culturally and ecologically productive. She's got a pink hard-hat and a quick wit, and a willingness to get her hands dirty and talk about things like "beauty," in a way that redefines it for us all.
-- Heather Ring

Julie, I'm glad we could finally connect - so you could share your thoughts about the post-industrial landscape to a community of largely architects -

Oh, but so many architects are getting turned on by the issue of landscape and site! One of the primary reasons I came to teach at The University of Virginia is that we are one department: The Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. And through that -- if anything -- our disciplines are becoming even better defined.

Back in the 90s there was all this buzz about collaboration - but it was really more like cooperation. But now there are more and more competitions and RFPs that are requiring multidisciplinary teams. The era of the master-architect is dead. There's an increasing awareness of the complexity of the landscape, and architects are looking for that expertise from landscape architects, engineers and ecologists who are prepared to address those complexities.

But your work has been uniquely focused in addressing the complexities of reclaiming industrial sites. Do you only take on projects that already have your slant, or do you find yourself in a position where you have to persuade others of your values?

That has been the story of my life so far. Corporations, city agencies, the EPA - all who I've worked for - are all trying to figure out how to address these sites. Clients are often painfully aware that so many of our landscapes are degraded, but there are so many conflicting and conflicted feelings about it. They know it can't be business as usual, but there's still a lack of vocabulary. What is an industrial landscape, and how do you deal with it other than trying to wipe it clean and start with a tabula rasa? My efforts have been to develop this vocabulary and reveal the potential of working with the site rather than erasing it. I've been invading the territory of engineers, who have otherwise been the primary consultants on these types of projects, called in to clean up nasty sites. There's a growing understanding that beyond engineering, there are questions of cultural and ecological importance. Conceptually, the clients are starting to get their heads around it, but in terms of action and implementation, they can't quite get there. There are so few built models to refer to that are interesting, economically viable, and culturally rich.

Then what models can we point to?

Most cited is the Ruhr Valley in Emsher, Germany - successful because they first acknowledged it as a cultural landscape, and then set about to regenerate it. There were many projects, but the the park at Duisburg-Nord by Latz and Partners received the most press. A great example of an economic investment through an attempt to reclaim a region. The best examples are all European.

But in Dearborne, Michigan, the Ford Rouge Plant led by Bill McDonough received a lot of attention. It's still in process, an unfinished work. McDonough - a very convincing human being - clicked with Bill Ford, who had these environmental aspirations for Ford Motor Company. What began as a commission for the new assembly plant expanded when McDonough said, "I really think you need to look at the plant in its entirety." So, he brought on this multidisciplinary team - including D.I.R.T. Studio and Clayton Rugh, an expert in phytoremediation.





For the design guidelines you set up for the EPA - and more generally -- when you collaborate with these environmental scientists and engineers - what do you see as the role of the designer?

The key thing is for the designer to bring in a holistic approach: cultural, economic, ecological, and even spiritual. Make the process visible, physical. Engineers are thrilled because now their work extends beyond just a functional requirement. Storm-water management becomes poetic. A designer helps make legible the culturally significant act of engineering these systems.

Scientists - often tucked away in basement laboratories - are thrilled to have designers test the applications of their work. The artist Mel Chin did this with phytoremediation. He literally pulled the scientist Rufus Cheney out of the basement laboratory of the US Department of Agriculture and put phytoremediation on the map, because he basically made a garden and put it out there on the world. The scientist Clayton Rugh has this laboratory on a major thoroughfare in the Ford Rouge Plant. So passersby can say "Look, there's Dr. Rughe and his lab assistants, working in the garden," with the backdrop of the coke oven. So that's the role of the designer.

The other thing I tell my students is that we try to make the implications and the consequences visible. In D.U.M.P., a studio I teach on a landfill site, I ask, “What does all this garbage really look like?”


Wait - if D.I.R.T. stands for Design Investigations Reclaiming Terrain -- what does D.U.M.P. stand for?

Well, people get upset to hear a landfill called a "dump," so I say, "Oh! But it stands for Design Understanding Many Perspectives!" Oh, yeah, right. So, first we get some perspective on what it really means to produce a ton a trash. One student made a very creepy and powerful expression by wearing a body cast of effigies. Another modeled one of our review rooms and calculated that a ton of garbage would fill the space three feet high.

My students were doing some of the first toxic mappings that are now buried in EPA reports. It's a mixed bag. Many do not want to see these maps -- they want it out-of-site / out-of-mind.

How do you initially approach the site and generate these mappings?

I call the process Industrial Forensics, and as with any other urban landscape, you trace the site's evolution. In this case, there's a very productive past, both good and bad. We track what was made there, where the raw materials come from, the flows of transport, the products and byproducts and how they impact the environment both invisibly and visibly - how these operations have formed traces on that place. And these mappings address a very large scale: basically, take an architectural scale and add a few zeros.

What's the difference between uncovering a historical artifact or industrial ruin and revealing a historic process, like mining?

What often happens is these landscapes become domesticated as people try to tame them, muting their power by erasing the traces of production. At Duisburg-Nord, the blast furnaces appear in one dimension as these romantic ruins, but the design also orchestrates a "walk to the top," which is probably one of the most unique experiences one could have. You can almost smell the hundreds of workers that contributed to the site's evolution. For an industrial ruin to maintain that history while constructing new use and meaning -- this is what I call the sublime.

Could you talk more about your conception of the sublime? What is the “toxic beauty” in land scarred by with mine refuse and waters laced with acid? And for that matter, how has your work been received? Do you find resistance from communities that have more traditional notions of beauty and nature?

That's the biggest challenge I face: regulations are a pain, but perceptions are the bigger obstacle. For most part with landscape, expectations are locked into a pastoral ideal. But when I've re-presented these industrial landscapes to the community and posed the question, "Do you think these are beautiful?" they will say, "You know what? It's a stretch for me - but they are." And I think they're responding to their experience actually working on these sites. They realize, "This is important to my memory." Clearly they're not proud of a toxic legacy, but with that comes a memory of their hard work and supporting a family - so to them, there's a beauty to it.

But this is only if they're even given an opportunity to see that. There are so many people working out there who only show the community a menu of idealized landscapes - they don't even give them a chance to respond to the industrial landscape itself. When I was in Chicago, I asked, "Have you taken Mayor Daley to see these quarries, basins and landfills?” Revealing these landscapes makes some people incredibly nervous. At the Mayor's Institute, what you hear is: they're ugly, they're blight, degraded, useless. But if you asked the current generation, they might use the word "cool.”

Why is that?

When I started teaching these seminars a decade ago, I showed my students all of these photographs of industrial landscapes: Robert Smithson, John Fall, Richard Mizrack. And I thought it was so radical. But more and more my students would just shrug their shoulders and say, "What's the big deal, Julie? I grew up with this." And actually - I did too. I would drive by the oil refineries in New Jersey and think they were just beautiful.

But environmental regulation is really new - it came about in the 70's. In the 50's, the common practice was to dump the oil from you car right down the drain. It's that generation - who are still the decision makers - they're ashamed, in denial. I've grown a lot more sympathetic. I think in the past my approach was a lot more harsh and accusatory. I still challenge, but I like to think I'm growing more sensitive to where they've come from. They are going to need time and education.

You've written that we could find new topographies in landfills - dynamic and shifting, from subsidence and deposits. Has working with post-industrial sites opened up new material potentials, and is this something you've had the opportunity to test?

For our Urban Outfitters project at the Philadelphia Dockyards, I asked the contractors to salvage all the concrete on the site that was being demolished, and would normally go to a landfill. Instead, I had the concrete busted into as many big pieces as they could. We took those giant chunks of concrete and put it back on site as a new kind of paving system that looks like flagstone. We also used something called Betty Rubble, chunks of concrete, asphalt and brick tumbled into an aggregate. The contractor said he hadn't seen a single piece of concrete leave the site. To get a client to skim off the asphalt and allow the railroad tracks to be exposed or to put this crazy paving system in that requires designing on-site - well, we're getting there. But, actually, for this client, whose concerns weren't environmental - I just didn't tell him about that. He was just concerned with the aesthetics. So, he got what he wanted and I got two things I wanted.






Is that something you often need to do - edit the story you tell the client?

All the time. I can talk about the projects as art and I can talk about the projects as environmental strategies - and the more levels a project operates at, the more successful it is.

Do you tend to work at a scale that can be described as art, or are you trying to do something that works on a larger scale, with implications for the growth and structure of cities?

I certainly hope these projects are working at multiple scales. I'm thrilled about the recent project at the Philadelphia Dockyards - in part to get something built - but also to fulfill a history as an artist, and a history building gardens with Michael Van Valkenburgh. So it comes down to a very palpable, visceral scale but also operates at the scale of larger urban systems. Hopefully, the gamut.

The River Rouge worked at multiple scales - and like I said - it's still in process, and could strive to work at all the Ford properties around the world.

Cities are realizing that to keep people in their cities, they need to take hold of their identities. I've consulted with the City of Chicago, and I think they're really enlightened. But they have a ways to go. I worked on a park in Chicago that was a former landfill and quarry, and Daley couldn't deal with the more extreme topographies that we proposed. He wanted it smoothed out, diluted, erased. It's a weaker version, but it's one version. But Chicago has the whole Calumet - a huge industrial landscape to regenerate. When you think of all the industrial cities, it really varies how willing they are to embrace their cultural landscape. Pittsburgh is really backwards in this respect.





You'd think Pittsburgh would be on to this!

I know, right? I got into an argument within five minutes of meeting with the Mayor of Pittsburgh - this when I can be a bit of an asshole from New Jersey. I went to school in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon for sculpture, so the city had been my home. I told him, “I just really think that you've cleaned your city up too much. You've scrubbed it.” And again, he comes from a generation when the steel mills were ugly and dirty. I said, “Unless you're careful, your city is going to look like every other city.” But these landscapes are tough - people have very conflicted feelings about them.

So, I stopped in Pittsburgh on my drive up to Philly one semester -

Oh, did you stop by Vintondale?


I wish. No, but I saw the drawings of Vintondale's Testing the Waters exhibited at Carnegie Mellon. What's it like, now - ten years later? Does it really have that color-change effect through the filtration of water from acid mine drainage?

Yes, wow. Ten Years. I curtseyed out of the project at one point in a disagreement with the project director. But it was one of the first projects that I was really able to work with a team to experiment with these ideas, so I'm eternally grateful for the opportunity. It was an innovative process, a multidisciplinary team, a grassroots approach and a more or less successful project. I saw the basins being excavated and they were very legible. I'm not sure what kind of legibility they'll have with any growth, but supposedly they are functioning - and the colors detectable.





What's the story behind TerraGRAM, your High Line competition team?

That was most wonderful experiences I've had as a designer. For one, personally and professionally it was a reunion with Michael Van Valkenburgh. Michael formed the team, and in the initial discussions I said to Michael and the team members, I really want to advocate giving ourselves a name. A lot of times we're still referred to as the Van Valkenburgh team, but the name Terragram got out there, too - with the understanding that it's a project specific team.

Our challenge was to reveal the complexity of the landscape that was already there. I'm proud to have been a part of the team that took on this attitude. Some people got it - and some didn't. I still feel, very simply, to this day, that our proposal wasn't sexy enough for the New York client. It was too subtle, but we feel that we rose to the challenge to reveal the complexity and beauty already inherent in the site.




I really am anxious to see what will happen. There is definitely this fear, for anyone I know that has experienced the High Line, that -- in its development -- we're going to lose something.

From Day One, Michael said, “This is the stance we're going to take towards the High Line - are you in or are you out?” Competitions in the best sense of the word are about pushing ideas. This often gets lost when people are too preoccupied with winning. I'm heartened that to this day people say to me that our team proposal was the most profound and right on.

Are you going to work as TerraGRAM again?

I don't know! I think it would be great - if the right projects come along, most certainly. We have our antennas up, but right now we're still recovering. That was an investment of a lot of time, money, emotional energy.

So, this seemed like a good way to end this: Within the studios you teach, you challenge your students to become “design citizens.” What does that mean?

It really is a fantastic place we're going - the definition of being good designer is changing. The late Sam Mockbee of the Rural Studio said, "Architecture isn't great until it's done some good." When I was on the jury for the National Design Award, we had this term: Just Design. We were looking for what else a design did, in terms of its contribution to society and culture, in addition to being a beautifully designed object or place.

I think that's where we are -- more students seem to feel included and charged as designers. Even if they go out in the world and don't do Design with a capital D, they are still “design citizens.” They might be a great client, critic or ecologist. They see that their work has to be pro-active rather than reactive. Not just solving problems as given, but identifying the issues and acting upon them.

It does seem like the more people that engage in this thinking; the more it supports every other project trying to get this type of work accepted.

Absolutely. D.I.R.T. is still experimenting and trying to get these things built, but it's very much balanced with pushing these ideas in the studio at school. It's easy to get discouraged, so it's inspiring to see how students explore the alternatives that clients won't allow. And then these students are sent out in the world to challenge the established practices.

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