How the "queen of milk" is transforming industrial sites

Vintondale Salvage Park , a 35-acre site in coal country near Pittsburgh, completed in 2002, played a pivotal role. Why? It was a perfe...


Vintondale Salvage Park, a 35-acre site in coal country near Pittsburgh, completed in 2002, played a pivotal role. Why?

It was a perfect and multidisciplinary team of engineers, hydrogeologists, architects, artists, historians and landscape architects. We learned all about treating acid mine drainage to design a natural filtration system that treated years of mine runoff pollution. Excavators have re-sculpted 19th-century beehive ovens used to convert coal into coke to make steel. We pulled them out from behind those chain-link fences and made science visible, beautiful. It is now a neighborhood park along a historic bike path. I mean, boom. Everything fell into place. People started to pay attention. There weren’t really any models at that time in the United States. From then on, I could point to anything in rural Pennsylvania and say, “It’s totally possible.”

Talk more about reusing materials salvaged from sites.

I’m obsessed with resourcefulness. Maybe it’s because I come from a big family. So when construction activity as usual sends debris to Maine because landfills are closed in Massachusetts, I say so. I still can’t stand the word “sustainability” — it’s just common sense. I am particularly in love with concrete. A person sees debris there. I see this wonderful patina. I imagine who stood on it, I see the work on this surface and I think, is it so beautiful?

I understand that you name your materials.

I have no idea how to refer to something until you name it. At the construction site of a historic shipyard, now Urban Outfitters headquarters in Philadelphia, we had Barney and Betty Rubble, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm. The crew loved it.

How did you react when you became the first Oberlander winner?

The award really made me proud, quite deeply. He was kind of saying, “Please do this.” I think the jury did a pretty amazing job looking at not necessarily the number of works built, but the impact that someone’s work had, also in design education, and someone’s will one to take risks. Cornelia Oberlander [a landscape architect who died in 2021] was a pioneer. She was a risk taker. This does not happen enough in our discipline.

Have you ever heard personal anecdotes about your work?

My brother Joe recently told me he met a grandmother on Urban Outfitters. She was watching her grandchildren play and Joe asked her what her relationship, if any, was with the disused US Navy Yard. “I was a cook in this building,” she smiles. “I’m so happy to see him alive.”

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