Twenty years after his death, Lucy Salt looks at the work of Brazilian landscape architect and artist Roberto Burle Marx, whose modernist designs and fundamental ideas still resonate.
‘For the artist all of life is an experiment…it is always a search, the curiosity to encounter something he has not known before’
– Roberto Burle Marx
Roberto Burle Marx and his gardener Ataide are laying the table for dinner. There are vessels of flowers and foliage arranged down the centre of a geometrically patterned table cloth. It’s 1991 and the photograph captures the moment when Ataide is adding the last stems to the last vase as Burle Marx watches on, his hands gesture ‘yes, just there, just so’.
By the time of his death, aged 82 in 1994, Burle Marx had transformed landscape design in Brazil and across the world. He had created around 3,000 landscape architectural projects across Latin America, Europe, Asia and North America. He had discovered 13 species of plants, all named after him. He had championed the use of native plants, stridently argued against the destruction of wilderness areas, and created a signature style that inspires landscape architects and gardeners to this day. A pioneer of modernism in Brazil, he had collaborated with many of the icons of Modernist architecture, including Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer.
Itamaraty Palace, Brasilia. Architect Oscar Niemeyer, 1970 (Image: A C Moraes)
Born in 1909 to a Brazilian mother and German father, Roberto was the fourth of six children. The family celebrated the artistic life and embraced a sense of intellectual curiosity. It was a philosophical approach to living that Roberto carried throughout his life.
In 1928, Roberto’s father, Wilhelm Marx, took the family to Germany for a year-long ‘culture-bath’. They rented a house in Berlin and occasionally travelled to other parts of Europe. Roberto had singing lessons and studied drawing at the Art Academy in Berlin. The family was immersed in Berlin’s cultural offerings: theatre, concerts, opera and the visual arts. Roberto saw original paintings by the old masters, but it was seeing the first major exhibition of Van Gogh’s works that arrested the twenty-one year old’s attention.
Sitio Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro (Image: Halley Pacheco de Oliveira)
‘Those paintings – that violent expression – invaded my whole being! I realised painting would have to be my medium,’ he told Conrad Hamerman in his last interview in 1995.
Burle Marx would always consider himself a painter, considering his landscape architectural works as an extension of his artistic practice. He had been collecting plants and experimenting in the garden at home from the age of seven; landscape design was simply another medium with its own unique qualities. His plans resemble his abstract paintings, as do his landscapes, which, on a grand scale, organise both soft and hard landscape elements according to aesthetic principles. More than mere patterning however, his works offered a new identity for the Brazilian public realm, one that was grounded in that place. The now iconic Aterro do Flamengo and Copacabana Beach Promenade exemplify his signature style.
Copacabana Promenade, Rio de Janeiro, 1970. Image: Allan Fraga
Curiously, it was while in Germany that Burle Marx had found Brazilian plants on display in the Dahlem botanical gardens. He saw the potential of the plant material; bold colours and striking texture. It seeded the idea to design modern gardens using local plants, a radical departure from the typical gardens of Brazil, which at the time strove to emulate the exotically planted formal gardens of Europe.
In his 1962 essay The Garden as Art Form, Burle Marx describes his approach to composition; how it extends into the three-dimensional and temporal realms of the landscape.
‘Rhythm is not repetition but a matter of how one form relates to another, or how one place, texture, surface or colour relates to another,’ he wrote. When it came to working with plants, it was no different.
‘The garden will be a constantly changing entity, but if it contains its own rationale, if all its parts are interrelated then there will always be harmony.’
Throughout his life, Burle Marx often undertook expeditions into the Amazon jungle and South-East Asia, collecting plants as he went. He brought them back to his home near Rio, Sitio Santo Antonio da Bica, a 90 hectare former coffee plantation which he had purchased in 1949.
Garden detail, Sitio Santo Antonio da Bica, Burle Marx’s home & studio, 1949-1994. (Image: Halley Pacheco de Oliveira)
The property was his studio, home, arboretum and laboratory. Over four decades he built up his collection of plants and experimented with design, plants, architecture and art. At the Sitio he painted, sang, gardened and entertained. He cultivated and tested the plants he’d collected before using them in his other projects.
It all sounds rather hedonistic, however during that last interview with Hamerman, the master reflected on his role as innovator and champion for social and environmental change. Along with all his iconic landscapes and gardens, his final message continues to resonate:
‘An artist who opens up new vistas in his field cannot confine himself to the narrow problems and technical expertise of his craft. He needs a general culture and understanding. But today, above all, he cannot remain aloof from the social and economic problems of our time. Life cannot be confronted with sentimentalities.’
Roberto Burle Marx
By Lucy Salt