Industrial Strength

Julie Bargmann’s on a mission: Can a tough girl from New Jersey teach the EPA how to make Superfund sites live and breathe again?

Charlottesville, Virginia, is a picturesque town in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. Every year thousands of tourists come here to visit its plantations and horse farms, to drive the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, and to stroll through the University of Virginia’s colonnaded campus. Eventually they make their way over to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate teeming with the orchards, vineyards, and ornamental groves that he himself once tended.

Landscape architect Julie Bargmann, on the other hand, flees Charlottesville whenever it is humanly possible. On these jaunts she escapes Albemarle County, where she is an associate professor at UVA, to seek landscapes of immense beauty and design potential: derelict mines, toxic dumps, rank landfills, and most recently, Superfund sites. This vast terrain of waste is to Barg-mann what gardens were to Jefferson—a perverse passion. “I love the by-products,” she says. “That’s my obsession.”

“The two ends of my barbell are designer-artist and political animal,” Bargmann says from her cell phone. It’s mid-January and the connection is scratchy because she’s driving a van of UVA students on a field trip to Hagerstown, Maryland. The students have already begun to see their world through Bargmann’s eyes: a landscape stripped of pastoral idealism. She begins each course by projecting a slide of a refinery-choked stretch of the Meadowlands as seen through an oily haze. Sometimes she does this dressed in “the space suit”—a decontamination outfit—and a hard hat. “Listen guys. I consider this beautiful,” she will say of the refineries, watching the students cock their heads to the side in puzzlement. “This is where we are starting from.”

Now, in the van, the students prepare to hike in the foothills of an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, one ravaged by years of fertilizer and pesticide production. While there, they will consider how a landscape can be “remediated” or cleaned of dangerous toxins. For Bargmann that process reaches far beyond simply Band-Aiding the site and walking away. For a site to be completely healed, she says, it must once again become viable to the community it serves. And it should expose or at least recognize its industrial past. “This process is a culturally significant act, which is completely foreign to the EPA,” Bargmann says. “They never consider the site’s next use.”

That Bargmann should choose a barbell to describe her mission—as opposed to say, a spectrum—is apt for many reasons. For one, the efforts undertaken to actually build any of her projects are prodigious economically, politically, and physically; they are also fraught with bureaucracy, denial, and shame. For another, the typical process of greening over a contaminated site often hides its history; Bargmann’s heavy lifting is to expose how it became toxic in the first place. From her perspective there’s something dishonest and superficial about giving a site’s (fabricated) physical appearance precedence over its function and history. “Reducing landscapes to visual terms is what I face all of the time,” she says. “It’s how a landscape breathes that constitutes its beauty.” In this respect her work is no different from Jefferson’s Monticello. (“The guy was fucking crazy, and the site is an ingenious working landscape,” Bargmann says.) “My role is as catalyst,” she adds. “How can a landscape of disturbance be reset and begin flowing again?”

Bargmann is perhaps best known for Testing the Waters, a 35-acre park on a former coal mine in Vintondale, Pennsylvania. Her design aestheticized the conversion of contaminated runoff from the region’s abandoned mines into clean water with a series of filtering pools. For the project she enlisted an artist, a historian, a hydrologist, and most important, the citizens of Vintondale, whose volunteer efforts were needed to build and tend the finished park. Whereas Vintondale was a grassroots effort, her project Revitalizing River Rouge was a massive corporate undertaking. If completed, it will breathe life again into the monstrous 1,200-acre Ford Motor Company plant in Dearborn, Michigan. For these projects Bargmann was awarded the 2001 National Design Award; she has been called one of the most innovative people of the twenty-first century by Time and CNN.

To understand what drives 45-year-old Bargmann, it helps to have lived in New Jersey—she is from Westwood. It also helps to be a fan of Charles Sheeler’s Precisionist paintings, and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial photographs. However, it is essential to understand the legacy of the late earthworks artist Robert Smithson. “It’s been twenty-five years since Smithson’s been dead, and I’m still trying to build upon his work,” Bargmann says. “He’s my hero.”

Smithson was the progenitor of an important art movement linking prehistorical land formations with apocalyptic postindustrial wastelands. His most famous work is the monumental Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot basalt, limestone, rock, and earth breakwater that recently resurfaced from the northeastern waters of the Great Salt Lake, in Utah. In his exuberant 1967 essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Smithson celebrates what he calls nonsites—pumping derricks, used-car lots, and abandoned factories—and wryly compares bleak Passaic to Rome. Bargmann’s land-reclamation projects are an extension of this viewpoint, a philosophy in which there is no privileged landscape.

“Julie is one of the leading figures in landscape architecture whose specialty has become the remediation of brownfields [contaminated properties], and that circles back to her interest in Smithson,” says John Beardsley, senior lecturer at Harvard University’s landscape architecture program and author of Earthworks and Beyond. “Smithson recognized that the regeneration of a site is not only an environmental issue but a social and artistic issue as well.”

Bargmann lives in a loft in a converted 1929 Coca-Cola bottling plant in a deceptively quaint part of Charlottesville she calls “the hood—if you can believe that.” I met her there on a frigid January morning. The loft was as spotless as a house for sale and flooded with sunlight. The mise-en-scène—furniture, kitchen, roof deck carpeted in Astroturf—was 1950s retro. Fella Yella, her frenetic canary, chirped and squawked from an ornate green cage.

Bargmann’s bleach-blond hair was still wet, revealing a row of black roots trying to reclaim their place in an otherwise artificial mane. Her blue eyes sparkled, rimmed with mascara the color of slag. She poured herself a cup of coffee, sat at the kitchen table, and described her “brand-spanking-new” work: Superfund sites. Last summer the EPA hired Bargmann’s studio D.I.R.T. and the environmental consulting group E2 to scout 14 Superfund sites in 11 states for the EPA’s pilot Superfund Redevelopment Initiative remediation program. Instead of “the old contain it, fence it, walk away,” Bargmann and E2 will work with the local community to plan the site’s next use. When asked why someone with her renown would choose such low-profile work at this point in her career she says, “So I can sleep at night!” Bargmann considers herself a critical practitioner, not a service provider. She doesn’t need to own the work.

It’s a job few other landscape architects of her stature would take on. “It’s so depressing,” she says. “Industry was the lifeblood of the town. You take that out of the equation and oh, it’s so horrible. What you really want to do is reclaim the town.” Take Gary, Indiana, where Bargmann recently spent a weekend. Innocuous-looking fields of brown grass—growing on top of landfill that predated 1977 sanitation laws—didn’t appear toxic at all. “The only clue we had was a fence with a small sign that labeled it a Superfund site,” Bargmann says. The downtown, however, resembled a city that had been bombed: “We saw vacant apartments, vacant stores. The entire city was a Superfund site.” When working with towns like Gary, her role is healer, not only for the physical land but for its inhabitants. “When the community tells you the story of their town, they totally light up,” Bargmann says. “They were incredibly proud of that landscape, and now they’re ashamed.”

The first Superfund site Bargmann investigated was the defunct 200-acre Roebling steel plant on the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey. Roebling Steel operated from 1906 until the 1980s, polluting the river with slag and infecting factory buildings with arsenic and lead. After Bargmann learned about the site from a graduate student’s thesis, she begged the EPA for permission to visit the site with her students. Although she often jokes that she is “kept” by the university, the academic clout often validates Bargmann’s mission and usually, after some pleading, she is granted access.

But that access is limited. At Roebling, for example, the students were permitted only 45 minutes on-site. Before a Superfund expedition, Bargmann takes an aerial map of the site and parcels it into sections, something she calls a “Superfund quilt.” Then she assigns each square to a student. Dressed in yellow rubber boots, hard hats, surgical masks, and glasses with side protectors, the students, who are forbidden to wander and are tracked the entire time, are asked to recommend suggestions for how the site can once again be used by the community. While Roebling is an ongoing academic study, Bargmann wants to turn another Superfund site, the HOD landfill in Antioch, Illinois, into a colossal park that would put playfields on landfills, farm methane to heat the local high school, and use leachate and storm-water-treatment filtering pools to revitalize the creek and surrounding wetlands. Part of the park’s allure will be watching its toxic parts diminish.

Bargmann is the sixth of eight “hyperachieving” children. Her father was a plastics salesman in Toledo before moving to New Jersey. Her mother was a homemaker who taught her crafts such as quilting. “I was born with a crochet hook in my hand,” she says with a smile. When it was time for college, Bargmann decided to study sculpture at Carnegie Mellon because the department there valued traditional crafts. After college she floated around, tending bar and trudging through life in what she calls her “black-hole period.” When, in the early 1980s, someone suggested she study landscape architecture, her reaction was, “What the HELL is that?”

Harvard’s graduate department of landscape architecture is not the kind of program where you write “black-hole period” on your application and are accepted; Bargmann got in on the strength of her sculpture portfolio. “Landscape architecture is such a complete goulash of students,” she says. “It’s a catchall discipline, which is its strength and its identity crisis.” Here Bargmann studied with Michael van Valkenburgh, whom she still considers her mentor, and also worked for his firm designing public parks and private gardens. After a year at the American Academy in Rome, she was assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota for three years. In 1993 Bargmann received a sizable research grant to study mined-land reclamation across the United States. “I turned it into a road trip,” she says. “Basically I wanted to look at mined landscapes, and I did a huge loop around the country, which is when project D.I.R.T. started.”

D.I.R.T. is Bargmann’s present design studio, a collaborative venture founded in 1992 and responsible for the reuse of such industrial sites as Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams; Ravenswood Quarry Winery, in Sonoma; and Turtle Creek Water Works, in Dallas. “I have a million acronyms [for D.I.R.T.], which confuses the fuck out of everyone,” Bargmann says with a laugh, rattling them off: Design Investigation Reclaiming Terrain; Doing Industrial Research Together; and Dump It Right There. Last year the firm and its collaborators exhibited sandblasted glass etchings of Testing the Waters at Documenta 11, perhaps the most important art show in the world due to its uncanny ability to ignite trends, such as, perhaps, viewing landscape architecture as art.

After lunch in the hood, we drive over to D.I.R.T. in Bargmann’s lustrous black ‘62 Mercury Comet. (“I drive like a granny, and there are no seat belts.”) The studio is located in the rafters of a fairly raw converted barn with unfinished wooden slat floors. Looking out the window to the east is a coal tipple. On the train tracks below, long coal cars roll past. And to the south rise the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Inside, drafting tables are suspended by cable wires. Shelves of hard hats, glass jars filled with “yellow boy” (a by-product of acid mine drainage), and a mold used for building the Roebling Bridge line the walls. Topographic maps, aerial photos, and collaged images of D.I.R.T. projects are everywhere. We sit together at a drafting table until dusk discussing her projects, map by map. Bargmann’s fastidiously detailed portfolio belies her seemingly casual persona. Although she curses like a man in a hard hat—and speaks a Jersey slang in which words like dude, chick, sissy, and shebang are prominent—Bargmann’s seriousness of intent is powerful.

Bargman reveals that she knows of two working industrial plants that are Superfund sites in every way but designation. The government, she believes, will never test such sites because if they test positive, so to speak, they will have to shut down. “There are over a million derelict sites,” she says. “Three hundred thousand alone are abandoned mines. Only fifteen hundred are on the Superfund’s national priority list.”

One imagines the frustration that must accompany Bargmann’s efforts. To quote from her D.I.R.T. portfolio: “There are many days when I bang heads with federal agents, corporate leaders, and city officials, and I wish I was just making gardens for the rich and famous. But then I remember my students, and I put my hard hat back on and try again.”

Over a glass of wine at dinner, Bargmann, who insists on paying her student-employees though they’d probably work as unpaid interns, says many architects and designers “say collaboration, but what they really mean is cooperation.” When Bargmann says collaboration she means a cross-discipline endeavor. In her UVA tenure review, 47 design firms, environmental consultants, scientists, artists, and historians are credited as collaborators; one suspects the number is ever growing.

Right now, however, Bargmann is the It Girl, the reigning toxic beauty queen of brownfield remediation. “Julie didn’t invent this, and her work is a result of collaborative input, but she’s very effective at introducing complicated issues to the public,” Beardsley says. “She’s got a great public persona.” Bargmann concurs: “All the work I do is collaborative. I’ve become the spokesperson—for better or worse.”

But even in the spotlight, with the power of the media behind her, Bargmann accepts the limitations of her work. “I don’t think I’ll build many sites in my lifetime. They’re gonna do them,” she concedes, referring to her students. In this she conjures the words of environmental philosopher Frederick Turner, who writes of Bargmann’s approach, “The process-oriented model knows that nothing in this universe is ever perfect and immortal, that death comes to everything, that the function of an ending is to open up new possibilities.” As Bargmann says, “I’m the voice of the landscape.”

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