Julie Bargmann - transforming derelict industrial sites into happening public spaces

The countdown to the 2019 NZILA Firth Conference is underway as early bird tickets go on sale today. (May 15)

This year’s event will be held in Ōtautahi Christchurch 6-8 November and this year’s theme is DISRUPTION. This will be discussed in two parts - the disruption of nature and the disruption of people.

One of this year’s international speakers is Julie Bargmann - the founder and principal at D.I.R.T (Dump It Right There) studio in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Julie Bargmann is the founder of D.I.R.T.

Julie Bargmann is the founder of D.I.R.T.

She founded the studio in 1992 to execute projects with the passion, rigour, vision, and unflinching honesty that are her hallmarks.

Julie’s work hews to themes of economy of means, urban succession, community engagement, respect for sites’ narratives, and a love, in particular, for the industrial and urban landscape. Her background in sculpture guides the use of simple form that emerges from sites’ histories, often times with unearthed “debris,” laying the groundwork for that landscape’s next evolution. This adventurous design approach informs her role as Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia, where she leads venturesome investigations with students into derelict terrain, imagining renewed sites of cultural and ecological production.

LAA caught up with Julie ahead of her trip to New Zealand which is proudly sponsored by Streetscape.


Julie Bargmann - yes that’s her under the big arrow - demonstrates the “crazy broom” finish technique on a concrete mock-up.

Julie Bargmann - yes that’s her under the big arrow - demonstrates the “crazy broom” finish technique on a concrete mock-up.

LAA: You’re internationally recognised as an innovative designer.  What is it about your approach to your work that sets you apart?

JB: Three decades ago I was one of a handful of landscape architects in the US addressing polluted industrial landscapes, trying to infiltrate a territory predominated by engineers. Still my colleagues were primarily concerned with reclamation policy and technology while I was advocating for the role of design. Infuriated by limitations and inspired by possibilities, I began and continue a campaign for not just remediating contaminated landscapes but also regenerating the social and cultural value of derelict sites in many, many backyards.

LAA: How does the understanding of the history of a site help when designing its future?

JB: Sites contain multiple histories – natural and cultural – which represent deeps wells that can be tapped for design responses.  For me, I cannot begin work without knowing the evolution of a site, looking for as much evidence as possible to use as a starting point for its future.  I call it ‘site forensics’ since the design process becomes essentially an act of finding. Tracing the evolution of the landscape, along with social and ecological factors of its context, I believe is the only way to project forward.  It is not uncommon for our discipline to use site histories to inform design figuratively, but I experiment with how to present evidence literally, not as a didactic tool but as an authentic layer, waiting for the next one.

One of Bargmann’s projects was the Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia. Busted chunks of concrete from the original build reappear as porous paving nicknamed “Barney Rubble.” The use of the rubble is about two things: first is the reuse of materials that would normally be dumped in a landfill, and second, it’s about site histories. Some would say that busted concrete is not something to celebrate, but when seen anew, it can be extra-ordinary, says Bargmann.

One of Bargmann’s projects was the Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia. Busted chunks of concrete from the original build reappear as porous paving nicknamed “Barney Rubble.” The use of the rubble is about two things: first is the reuse of materials that would normally be dumped in a landfill, and second, it’s about site histories. Some would say that busted concrete is not something to celebrate, but when seen anew, it can be extra-ordinary, says Bargmann.

LAA: What’s the key message you’ll be delivering at the conference?

JB: I will share how I foreground science together with site histories to inform regenerative design projects. Pollution disrupts human and environmental health that continue to be met with simplistic engineered solutions. My plea begs designers to imagine futures with the biologically-based technologies coupled with the social history and values of impacted communities.  I believe in monopolising on the boom and bust of volatile cites, on the cycles of industrial and fallow landscapes. The socioecological health of vulnerable communities depends on a dynamic, dialectic way of thinking that I will argue, benefits from urban succession strategies to continually revitalise a healthy, cyclic nature of cities.