Core city park

Julie Bargmann Is the Winner of the Inaugural Oberlander Prize; a “Pritzker Prize” for Landscape Architecture.

Architects have the Pritzker and artists have the National Medal of the Arts. Now, landscape architects have the Oberlander.  

Last week, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) announced Julie Bargmann, founder of Charlottesville, VA-based D.I.R.T. (“Dump it Right There”) Studio, as the winner of its new biennial honor called the Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize. The award comes with a $100,000 purse and public engagement opportunities (including a recent symposium, Courageous By Design) that will unfold over the course of the following two years.   

“The landscape architecture equivalent of a Pritzker Prize, which includes a $100,000 award, didn’t exist,” says Charles Birnbaum, TCLF’s president and CEO. “We wanted to raise the public profile, understanding and value of landscape architecture.”

The idea for a prize was sparked in 2014, when a plan for the Frick Collection’s expansion threatened to demolish the New York museum’s celebrated garden—a rare U.S. commission for the influential post-war British landscape architect Russell Page. With the accrual of Oberlander honorees over the course of the next couple of decades, TCLF hopes to create an expanding awareness of the scope, scale, and significance of landscape architecture, from shaping the public realm to addressing the existential threat of climate change. 

Julie Bargmann
Julie Bargmann, founder of landscape architecture firm D.I.R.T. Studio, is the first winner of the Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize. COURTESY D.I.R.T. STUDIO

The prize is named for Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, a German-born Canadian landscape architect who died in May of complications from COVID-19, weeks shy of her 100th birthday. The New York Times called her the “grande dame of landscape architecture,” and she was renowned for socially responsible, collaborative work, from playgrounds to museums, which blended prescient advocacy for environmental sustainability with a modernist sensibility. Perhaps her most celebrated project Robson Square, a three-block public plaza in Vancouver, designed with architect Arthur Erickson.  

Bargmann, who has practiced for more than 30 years (she is also a Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia) focuses on contaminated, neglected, and forgotten urban and post-industrial sites. She often speaks of her her desire to “unearth” design elements from cast-off places. Working collaboratively with architects, historians, engineers, hydrogeologists, artists, and local stakeholders, she has transformed Superfund, mining, and manufacturing sites, and created parks, corporate campuses, and housing. 

“We are on this ride together, discovering things, debating others,” she says. “It’s far from creating a concept in a vacuum. The ideas emerge, they do not descend.”

Bargmann brings her background as an artist (she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture from Carnegie Mellon University and a Master in Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design) to all of her work, unearthing a narrative for each project that is rooted in its history and offers up alternative and experimental possibilities for the future.  

Turtle Creek Water Works
D.I.R.T. helped create an art space and unique gardens on the site of an abandoned pumphouse and its reservoirs. PHOTO ©CHARLES A. BRINBAUM, COURTESY THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE FOUNDATION

Asked what she might do with the Oberlander’s cash award, Bargmann notes: “It will probably involve a few of my favorite things: A long road trip, defunct and fallow land, the neighbors, mayors, and aspiring landscape architects.” 

By honoring Bargmann—an activist, provocateur, critic, and public intellectual—as its inaugural laureate, the Oberlander Prize claims landscape architecture’s increasingly cross-disciplinary mantle with pride and urgent, agitational insistence. 

Core City Park in Detroit, Michigan is an art-filled park imbedded into an urban landscape of once-abandoned industrial buildings. COURTESY PRINCE CONCEPTS AND THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE FOUNDATION

“The clear signal that [the Oberlander] sends to the landscape discipline is that those who are working on the margins are those who are creating the most innovation, often,” says Maurice Cox, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, in a TCLF video introducing the prize winner. Bargmann was selected by an independent seven-person jury chaired by Dorothée Imbert, the landscape architecture chair and director of the Knowlton School at The Ohio State University. 

TCLF has been working for years to establish the prize. In 2017, TCLF board member Joan Shafran and her husband Rob Haimes donated $1 million to support its creation; TCLF board members and other supporters have since made significant donations. Honorees will be included in TCLF’s oral history archive and their projects will be added to the organization’s database of more than 2,100 significant built landscapes. Going forward, their work will be assessed on a regular basis for any threats from neglect or destruction. 

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