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 everything about acid mine drainage treatment to design a natural filtration system that addressed years of pollution from mine runoff. Excavators resculpted 19th-century beehive ovens used to convert coal to coke to make steel. We brought them out from behind those chain-link fences and made the science visible, beautiful. Now it’s a neighborhood park alongside a historic bike trail. I mean, boom. It all came together. People started paying attention. There really weren’t any models at that time in the U.S. From then on I could point to something in rural Pennsylvania and say, “This is totally possible.”
Talk more about reusing materials salvaged at sites.
I am obsessed with resourcefulness. Maybe it’s because I’m from a big family. So when construction business as usual sends debris off to Maine because landfills are closed in Massachusetts, I call that out. I still can’t stand the word “sustainability” — it’s just common sensibility. I’m especially in love with concrete. One person sees it as debris. I see this wonderful patina. I picture who stood on that, 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 name it. On the construction site of a historic shipyard, now the Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia, we had Barney and Betty Rubble, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm. The crew loved it.
How did you react to becoming the inaugural Oberlander laureate?
The prize has really made me feel proud, pretty profoundly. It kind of said, “Please do this.” I think the jury did a pretty amazing job looking not necessarily at the number of built works but the impact that someone’s work has had, also 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 doesn’t happen enough in our discipline.
Do you ever hear personal anecdotes about your work?
My brother Joe recently told me about meeting a grandmother at the Urban Outfitters site. She was watching her grandchildren play, and Joe asked her what her relationship was, if anything, to the decommissioned U.S. Navy Yard. “I was a cook over in that building,” she said, smiling. “I’m so happy to see it alive.”