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Life in the Dead Zone

University of Virginia Professor Julie Bargmann describes her vision for postindustrial landscapes in a lecture at Washington University


Julie Bargmann has a colorful vision for an abandoned coal-mine site in Vitondale, Pa. She sees the contaminated orange water that still issues from the area being cleaned by a series of aerating basins. The water is treated, then cools, changing to red, then violet and finally blue before sloshing off to another area for further purification. Each differently colored pool of runoff is bounded by a "litmus garden" of plants and flowers that approximate that color; nearby, picnickers observe environmental stewardship in all its chromatic splendor.

The Testing the Waters Park, now under construction, delivers an artful solution to an ecological problem. Bargmann says, "We are surrounded with detritus left by two centuries of industry. This "waste' is the design fodder of the future." Her plans for "regenerative parks" have garnered her plenty of attention and architectural prizes, including a mention earlier this year as one of Time magazine's 100 innovators to watch.

The University of Virginia professor of landscape architecture, along with her DIRT (Design Investigations Reclaiming Terrain, also known as Dump It Right There) squad, believes that getting grass to grow on top of a landfill is like "putting lipstick on a pig." Whereas some folks just want to cover postindustrial ugliness with verdant golf-course fairways, Bargmann sees beauty in dead tracts of land and machine scrap and wants to integrate -- not level or gloss over -- these graveyards of technology with new uses.

She says that it's important to "accept the postindustrial landscape as it is" and to not "remediate" but to "regenerate." If you have walked through abandoned silos or seen a vast pit in the ground filled with millions of used auto tires, no doubt you have experienced not only the sense of depression these places can impart but also, perhaps, a feeling of gorgeous emptiness or decay. Bargmann is dedicated to converting toxic zones to safe ones, but she likes a few scars of the bleakness we have made to remain: the brown and gray, she says, are as much a part of our landscape as the green.

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