Portrait of Julie Bargmann

Julie Bargmann on Clogs as a Portal to Honoring Past Generations

The founder of D.I.R.T. Studio and inaugural winner of the Oberlander Prize for Landscape Architecture describes finding signs of life among post industrial ruins.

If you’re neither crippled by nostalgia nor indulging in ruin porn, you may notice signs of life in abandoned industrial sites—evidence of decades of grueling labor by men, women, and sometimes children that begs for acknowledgment. At Ford’s River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan (where my firm preserved the site’s legendary furnaces and installed new remediation gardens), I walked atop the silent coke ovens where coal hauled hundreds of miles had been cooked at a scorching 1,800 degrees to produce the main ingredient for steel. This process laced the air with ammonia and saturated the surrounding soil with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Bad stuff.

Among the weeds and rust of coke-oven batteries—rows and rows of cookers, two stories high and four feet wide—I came upon this pair of wooden soles with leather straps. Turns out the workers strapped on these clogs so that the bottoms of their boots wouldn’t melt. When I picked them up, my mind went to Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (1932–1933) commissioned by Edsel Ford. Then I pictured Charles Sheeler’s 1930 painting of the coke works titled American Landscape. A gritty factory, not a bucolic farm, was celebrated. These clogs were the portal to honoring generations who toiled, but also touted working at “Ford’s.”

pair of wooden and leather work clogs

Julie Bargmann is internationally recognized for her regenerative design of degraded landscapes. Founding her practice D.I.R.T. studio in 1992, she forged into the frontier of industrial sites, advocating for working landscapes’ cultural, environmental, and social value. Bargmann was recently named the inaugural laureate of the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.

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