Vintondale Reclamation Park, a 35-acre site in coal country near Pittsburgh, completed in 2002, was pivotal. Why?
It was a perfect, multidisciplinary team of engineers, hydrogeologists, architects, artists, historians and landscape architects. We learned all about acid mine drainage treatment to design a natural filtration system that tackles the years of pollution from mine runoff. Excavators have re-sculpted 19th-century beehive ovens that were used to convert coal into coke to make steel. We pulled them out from behind that wire mesh fence and made the science visible, beautiful. Now it is a neighborhood park along a historic bike path. I mean, boom. It all came together. People started paying attention. There were really no models in the US back then. From that point on, I could point to something in rural Pennsylvania and say, “This is absolutely possible.”
Talk more about reusing materials salvaged on sites.
I am obsessed with ingenuity. Maybe it’s because I come from a big family. So if construction is sending debris to Maine as usual because Massachusetts landfills are closed, that’s what I call that. I still can’t stand the word “sustainability” – it’s just common sense. I am especially in love with concrete. A person sees it as rubble. I see this beautiful patina. I imagine who was standing on it, I see the work on that surface and think, how beautiful is that?
I understand you name your materials.
I have no idea how to refer to something until you give it a name. On the construction site of a historic shipyard, now the headquarters of Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia, we had Barney and Betty Rubble, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm. The crew loved it.
How did you react when you became the inaugural Oberlander laureate?
The award really made me proud, pretty deeply. It kind of said, “Please do this.” I think the jury did a pretty good job of looking not at the number of works built per se, but at the impact someone’s work has had, including in design education, and how willing someone is to take risks. Cornelia Oberlander [a landscape architect who died in 2021] was a pioneer. She was a risk taker. It is too rare in our discipline.
Do you ever hear personal anecdotes about your work?
My brother Joe recently told me about meeting a grandmother on the Urban Outfitters site. She watched her grandchildren play and Joe asked her what her relationship was, if any, to the decommissioned US Navy Yard. “I was a cook in that building,” she said with a smile. “I’m so happy to see it alive.”