Ordinary to extraordinary: Julie Bargmann sees beauty in what’s broken

At Urban Outfitters’ campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, crisscrossed railtracks became walking paths. Photo: D.I.R.T. Studio At Urban Outfitters’ campus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, crisscrossed railtracks became walking paths. Photo: D.I.R.T. Studio

It’s not that Julie Bargmann doesn’t like a vast panorama of green countryside—it’s that she’s more inspired by its opposite.

“Give me a path through a landscape with railroad tracks overgrown with wild and woolly weeds,” says the landscape architect and D.I.R.T. Studio founder. “Give me urban wilds, give me a place that is growing according to its own logic, not ours.”

Currently the associate professor chair of UVA’s landscape architecture program, Bargmann has taken this interest in upgrading the degraded to transform an abandoned pumphouse, a former navy yard and a floodplain covered with refuse (among other locales) into stylish public spaces. She takes a cue from earthworks artist Robert Smithson.

“He saw the conflation of geological and industrial processes as beautiful. They make the ordinary extraordinary,” Bargmann says. “As much as I love plants and trees, I prefer a trip to a factory rather than a walk in the woods.”

Julie Bargmann. Photo: Amy Jackson
Julie Bargmann. Photo: Amy Jackson

Why landscape architecture?

Well, I knew I wouldn’t make a very good race car driver! That might have been more fun, I suppose. I like fast cars. But seriously, I had no idea what landscape architecture was until I was in my late 20s. Before that, I studied sculpture as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, and by the time I got my fine arts degree, I knew I did not want to make art—at least the kind that sat as inert objects in galleries. Then I entered a kind of black hole period, trying to figure out what to do with an art degree. I was living in Boston, bartending and drinking bourbon (hey, it was free!), and I came to the realization that I did want to remain an artist, but in a much different way. Landscape architecture synthesized a lot of things I was interested in—science, environmental and social issues, plants and dirt (yes, dirt). I reread my artist hero Robert Smithson’s essays and realized that his work all pointed toward working with complicated sites in a complex, dynamic way. As Smithson pointed out, art could operate in its most potent form by working with landscape processes.

It does also happen that he’s a New Jersey guy, and I’m a Jersey girl, and he was focused on industrialized landscapes, which became an obsession of mine. Probably because I spent a lot of my childhood driving past a bunch of refineries and other industrial sites, in a station wagon with too many siblings, often on the way to New York to see my father at work. He was a plastics salesman. So, it all came together, I guess. Jersey girl grows up breathing the soot of industry, moves to one of the most industrial cities in the country, Pittsburgh, to study art and then eventually becomes interested in landscape architecture. Granted, this was back in the early ’80s, when not many landscape architects were thinking about working with industrialized landscapes. So I found myself on the margins of the discipline, which is a comfortable spot for me as an artist.

Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?

When I was getting my master’s at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I was a teaching assistant for both design studios and technical courses, and found that I really enjoyed teaching. Fast-forward a few years, and I decided to teach at the best program in the country—UVA’s Department of Landscape Architecture.

There were some stops in between. I didn’t dive right into teaching. I felt it was important for me to learn and apply the art of landscape architecture before I could teach it. Years of working with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates built a foundation of loving this discipline, its medium and its message. Then I found a sort of happy medium—the reciprocal relationship between teaching and practicing—during a short stint at the University of Minnesota. It’s there that I founded D.I.R.T. Studio. The practice grew out of my research into mining, which led to my obsession with regenerative landscapes. As you know, it’s very cold in Minnesota. I got tired of hearing weather reports that would tell you how fast your flesh would freeze. I got a call from UVA in February, when, by the way, daffodils were in bloom, with an offer to freely experiment with my investigation of reclaiming post-industrial landscapes. That’s when the feedback loop, with D.I.R.T., really gained steam. It became clear very quickly that my work was filling a niche.

In Dallas, Texas, Bargmann transformed an abandoned pumphouse into an artistic event space. Photo: D.I.R.T. Studio
In Dallas, Texas, Bargmann transformed an abandoned pumphouse into an artistic event space. Photo: D.I.R.T. Studio

What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?

My mother, Alice, was incredibly creative and supported my every artistic inclination. I took dancing lessons, made mud pies in our backyard and was always making something with my mom, whether it was a watercolor or a piece of pottery or a quilt. She would watch me scribble in the margins instead of doing my book reports, and I would come home to a sketchbook and pastels she had placed on my bed. Through grade school and high school, I took every art class that I could take. I think of art and design as a continuum, so here I am today, making art on a really big scale.

Tell us about your college experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?

At Carnegie Mellon all the instructors were incredible—rigorous while encouraging experimentation. I’ve always appreciated teachers who would allow me to take risks. There wasn’t any single instructor at Carnegie Mellon who I would single out. But I do remember my ceramics instructor. He let me do crazy shit like throw dirt and hay into the clay-making machine, which is usually reserved for porcelain. I wanted to make adobe, not porcelain! And then, in graduate school, my mentor to this day, Michael Van Valkenburgh, also encouraged me to do crazy shit. I was making design models out of earthenware clay while everyone around me was doing clean, pristine ink drawings on mylar. Michael has been very important to me, in my life and work. His teaching was about risk-taking, and always loving what you make. Those are things that I tell my students on practically a daily basis.

The hull of a ship inspired the entry courtyard at the Brooklyn Navy Yard complex, which houses artists’ studios, fabrication shops and film production facilities. Photo: D.I.R.T. Studio
The hull of a ship inspired the entry courtyard at the Brooklyn Navy Yard complex, which houses artists’ studios, fabrication shops and film production facilities. Photo: D.I.R.T. Studio

On process: How does it begin?

It starts with the site, and I mean the site in every respect, its multiple layers of history and its present contexts: social, ecological, political. My process begins with what I call “site forensics,” unearthing as much as possible to work with. You can’t begin to imagine what a site should become unless you know what it was before you got there. I consider design an act of curation, careful editing and restrained addition to stay true to the site. This also means staying true to the people who live and work there.

What are you working on now?

Other than making an attempt to run UVA’s landscape architecture department, I’m working on the redevelopment of a former steelworks in Pittsburgh. Tragically, the city hauled off all the industrial structures except this one mill. Still, the riverfront site is massive and sublime. Our team is trying like hell not to have the developer domesticate it. The other current project is an abandoned limestone quarry in West Virginia. It sits on a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Shenandoah River. The excavated lake is a mind-blowing 250′ wide and a mile long. The former mill is in ruins amidst piles of bright white manufacturing spoils, spent limestone so alkaline that nothing grows on it. [It] also happens to be a significant Civil War battleground.

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