How the ‘Queen of Slag’ Is Transforming Industrial Sites

Visionaries is a limited series that looks at figures who are trying to transform the way we live.

For more than 30 years, Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect and founder of D.I.R.T. Studio (Dump It Right There) in Charlottesville, Va., has focused on contaminated and forgotten urban and postindustrial sites, dedicating her practice to addressing social and environmental justice. Her work to revitalize toxic sites and reconnect them to their communities has earned her the nicknames “Toxic Avenger” and “Queen of Slag.”

Her projects include an abandoned pump house and reservoirs in Dallas transformed into an art-filled residential garden; the derelict parking lot of a 19th-century fire station in Detroit converted into an urban woodland; historic shipyards that became welcome centers and corporate campuses; and former coal mines, quarries and foundries recast as community parks and public spaces.

In an essay titled “Justice from the Ground Up,” Ms. Bargmann wrote that there is a disturbing overlap between maps showing where poor people and ethnic minorities live and where contaminated soils exist in the United States.

In a 2003 profile, Ms. Bargmann, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia, said of herself: “The two ends of my barbell are designer-artist and political animal.”

In October 2021 she was named the inaugural winner of the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, created to celebrate prominent living landscape architects.

“Being a fierce public advocate is part of the practice of landscape architecture,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and chief executive of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the nonprofit that awarded the prize. “The hand of the landscape architect is often invisible. By celebrating a laureate, our goal is to raise the visibility and value of the discipline.”

Within that discipline, Ms. Bargmann’s focus on industrial spaces stands out: “It’s the stuff novelists write about, because the landscape is the glue,” she said.

“Bargmann’s legacy is much bigger than the built work,” Mr. Birnbaum said. “It’s valuing the landscape and the cultural life associated with it.” This interview has been edited for clarity and length:

Why landscape architecture?

If you’ve ever gone through a former manufacturing site, it’s just so sexy — it’s got this sublime scale. It’s there that I try to imagine folks working and living.

Did your early years impact your career focus?

My own little industrial history started riding in my family station wagon on the New Jersey Turnpike. I was living in a really nice postwar neighborhood with big old trees, but when we would see all of the refineries and factories I thought, “Wow.” I remember looking beyond them at all the modest workers’ houses. I went to college in Pittsburgh, a city with those same working neighborhoods stacked up on the hillsides and those belching steel mills down in the valley. I loved the steel mills. They’re so raw, they’re so tough. Everybody sees the bridges, but in the mills you’re seeing and feeling the heat, your jaw drops at the faces blackened by smoke. I just gravitate toward the “other” landscapes.

Three decades ago no landscape designer was looking at the vast manufacturing and mined landscapes, landfills and every type of degraded landscape. When I thought about the number of acres, it was astonishing. That set me off. Folks might think I’m a bit crazy, but I’m going to go find the landscapes that I want to work on, not more or less already perfect landscapes.

What are some influences on your work?

I have always loved how things are made, so I can’t help but bring up the major influence in my work, the artist Robert Smithson, one of the Earthworks artists. He hammered home that the landscape is just one big, old, messy process. The post-minimalist Eva Hesse was my other hero. I thought, I’m going to take entropy and turn it into an evolutionary, more dialectic way of having the site evolve and add the human touch.

Was there a turning point in your approach to landscape design?

During my first teaching job, I got some funding, and I took off on the road and looked at mined landscapes around the country, including restricted areas. It was fascinating, but when I learned what environmental engineers were doing, it infuriated me. They were doing very quick fixes. They took no account of the social or cultural implications of the landscapes; environmentally, they were squeaking by to meet the regulations. That completely negates any of that human agency. They’re throwing meaning out, robbing it from the community. That’s really when I launched into a holistic approach to my work.

Ms. Bargmann’s “debris garden.” Of her love with concrete, she said, “One person sees it as debris. I see this wonderful patina.”Credit…Eze Amos for The New York Times

Do most prospective clients understand your approach?

When I talk to a corporate leader or an E.P.A. representative who are skeptical, I don’t go on defending the sexy rust. I tell them stories. And I work really hard to pose alternatives. Degraded sites, toxic sites, a lot of times are not 100 percent contaminated. I always use the word “regenerate,” to create anew. I became fascinated with biologically-based remediation technologies. That science has totally propelled what we can do.

How did you learn about those technologies?

I go out into the field. I call up a scientist. The whole mining world was a total crash course on the different types of reclamation law. I always tell my students, do your homework, and do it in the world. Engage real people with the design process.

Vintondale Reclamation Park, a 35-acre site in coal country near Pittsburgh, completed in 2002, was pivotal. Why?

It was a perfect, multidisciplinary team of engineers, hydrogeologists, architects, artists, historians and landscape architects. We learned everything about acid mine drainage treatment to design a natural filtration system that addressed years of pollution from mine runoff. Excavators resculpted 19th-century beehive ovens used to convert coal to coke to make steel. We brought them out from behind those chain-link fences and made the science visible, beautiful. Now it’s a neighborhood park alongside a historic bike trail. I mean, boom. It all came together. People started paying attention. There really weren’t any models at that time in the U.S. From then on I could point to something in rural Pennsylvania and say, “This is totally possible.”

Talk more about reusing materials salvaged at sites.

I am obsessed with resourcefulness. Maybe it’s because I’m from a big family. So when construction business as usual sends debris off to Maine because landfills are closed in Massachusetts, I call that out. I still can’t stand the word “sustainability” — it’s just common sensibility. I’m especially in love with concrete. One person sees it as debris. I see this wonderful patina. I picture who stood on that, I see the work on that surface and think, how beautiful is that?

I understand you name your materials.

I have no idea how to refer to something until you name it. On the construction site of a historic shipyard, now the Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia, we had Barney and Betty Rubble, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm. The crew loved it.

How did you react to becoming the inaugural Oberlander laureate?

The prize has really made me feel proud, pretty profoundly. It kind of said, “Please do this.” I think the jury did a pretty amazing job looking not necessarily at the number of built works but the impact that someone’s work has had, also in design education, and how willing someone is to take risks. Cornelia Oberlander [a landscape architect who died in 2021] was a pioneer. She was a risk-taker. It doesn’t happen enough in our discipline.

Do you ever hear personal anecdotes about your work?

My brother Joe recently told me about meeting a grandmother at the Urban Outfitters site. She was watching her grandchildren play, and Joe asked her what her relationship was, if anything, to the decommissioned U.S. Navy Yard. “I was a cook over in that building,” she said, smiling. “I’m so happy to see it alive.”