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Industrial sites often create toxic waste. Julie Bargmann uses it to transform landscapes


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Judy Woodruff: And now a woman who has made a career of turning toxic and industrial sites into usable community spaces has won the first prize of its kind in landscape architecture.

Jeffrey Brown has more for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Orange polluted streams, bare trees and riverbanks, an abandoned coal mine in Vintondale, Pennsylvania. An ugly wasteland right?

Landscape architect Julie Bargmann saw more.

Julie Bargmann, Landscape Architect,: It's just not a lump of toxic stuff. It's a story. I find that that's where I go. I want to tell the past in order to project something for the future.

Jeffrey Brown: And so, over three years beginning in 1995, Bargmann and her team set about to regenerate the site, creating a safe and welcoming wetlands and park, while keeping reminders of its past, including a giant mound of refuse from the mine turned into an overlook.

It was, she says:

Julie Bargmann: The project that opened it all up. I had the suspicion that this was the work I wanted to do.

Jeffrey Brown: Bargmann has strong views and a sense of humor. She named her professional studio D.I.R.T., for Dump It Right There. And she happily embraces one nickname, the Queen of Slag, the leftover byproduct from the mining of metals.

Julie Bargmann: If I could make a crown out of slag, I'd be very happy. I mean, I think it's a recognition of the industrial territory that I adventured into.

Jeffrey Brown: Now she's the first ever recipient of an International Landscape Architecture Prize given to honor her work as a designer, educator and activist in addressing abandoned toxic, industrial and urban sites.

The award, created by the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, is named for renowned landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who died this year of COVID at age 99.

Bargmann lives and works in Charlottesville, Virginia, and has taught at the University of Virginia for 25 years. She often takes her architecture students to scummy, toxic sites most have never experienced before.

But it all began for her in a very different landscape, as a child in New Jersey. She remembers looking out the window of her parents' car in wonder at a vast, smoke-filled industrial scene.

Julie Bargmann: It was a landscape that I was surrounded by, the refineries.

In essence, they felt like home, and they felt like a landscape that, unbeknownst to me at that early age, would eventually work with. I also guess I'm a fan of the underdog or, in this case, maybe the under-duck, because I have always been defending the ugly duckling for its potential to turn into the swan.

Jeffrey Brown: But not a showy swan, a byword for Bargmann, modesty. She eschews architecture she calls fancy-pants. Even the celebrated High Line in New York, an elevated park built on an old railroad track, feels overdone to her.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation cites Vintondale, as well as three more recent projects, Turtle Creek Water Works in Dallas, a sustainable garden space in the remains of an industrial pump station active in the 1920s, the Philadelphia headquarters of clothing retailer Urban Outfitters at a decommissioned Navy Yard, for which Bargmann created a 15-acre campus, including reusing on-site demolition debris.

And Core City Park in Detroit, where Bargmann worked with a local developer to turn an unused parking lot into a community space and urban woodland. As always, she incorporated components of its past, a fire station dating to the 1800s.

Julie Bargmann: There were such simple means of revealing the earth, which was a former engine house, as paving, and then these trees coming up out of it.

There's a big cornerstone of the engine house that said 1893. Now, a lot of people might have put that on a plaque, like really made it fancy-pants. But, instead, I said, dump it right there. I put -- I said, just put it on the ground. Just make it go back to work.

Jeffrey Brown: That is the continuity of work a site has seen and the continuity of the life of people in and around it.

Julie Bargmann: There are so many people that still live there. And they remember that site. I just think it places that site in the realm, both physically, geologically, culturally, that can give it meaning.

I'm very against erasure, because it erases the meaning and any memory. And that's not great for the people, nor is it fair to the site.

Jeffrey Brown: These sites, she says, were once productive. Now let's keep them productive in a new way. And she hopes the prize can allow her to be a spokesperson for her philosophy of landscape architecture.

When you think back to that young girl looking out the window at the industrial landscapes in New Jersey to now, is it -- has it been rewarding work for you?

Julie Bargmann: Love it. Love it, love it, love it. I am just so happy that, for whatever reason, I followed my instinct.

It's pretty fun to be a bit of a pioneer and just -- and experiencing these amazing, sublime landscapes. So fulfilling. So fulfilling.

Jeffrey Brown: Julie Bargmann is now embarked on what she calls D.I.R.T. 2.0, focused on regenerating currently underused spaces in depopulated cities.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And such a treat to see her work.

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