Roberto Burle Marx: The Modernist Gardener

I discovered Roberto Burle Marx in my first year of studying landscape design, when we had to do a presentation on the work of a well-known landscape designer. Names like Barragán, Masuno, Jekyll, and Olmstead were thrown around, but there was something about the exuberance and philosophy of the Brazilian Renaissance man that drew me in. I chose Roberto.

Anyone who clothes themselves with plants is all right by me. Roberto Burle Marx, image via Pinterest

I’ve since held a deep reverence for Burle Marx (1909-1994). He was an artist, landscape architect, plant hunter and environmentalist. He wasn’t one who dallied in the aforementioned fields – he was brilliant at all of them.

Not only did he change the way gardens were seen and considered worldwide, he was one of the earliest champions of protecting Brazil’s vast rainforests, and has over 50 plants named after him – the ultimate accolade!

Burle Marx was born in São Paulo, Brazil. After finishing high school he went to Germany and studied painting. It was in the botanical gardens in Berlin that Burle Marx first ‘saw’ Brazilian flora. I guess, at that time, Brazil was a little like Australia has been in the past – eschewing native plants, culture, and landscapes in favor of the supposedly more sophisticated European ones. Burle Marx changed this – celebrating native Brazilian species in an entirely new way in his avant-garde landscapes.

Perhaps nowadays his gardens don’t seem so revolutionary, but in the 1950s when pretty cottage gardens were the norm, Burle Marx was painting landscapes with bold blocks of colour and texture, and using plants no one had ever bothered valuing before, in ways not previously considered. Suffice to say, he created quite a stir. He’s not called the father of modernist landscape architecture for nothing.

Edmundo Cavanellas Residence, 1954, image by Macolm Raggett
Edmundo Cavanellas Residence, 1954, image by Macolm Raggett
Vargem Grande Fazenda, 1979, image by Malcolm Raggett

To Burle Marx, gardens were art. Plants were his palette, and the earth was his canvas. He explains his approach and the artistic context of his work in his 1954 essay, Concepts Of Composition In Landscape Architecture, saying:

‘In reference to my life as an artist, having had a most rigorous training in the disciplines of drawing and painting, the garden was, in fact, the product of sedimentary circumstances. It came about from my interest in applying the fundamentals of aesthetic composition to nature itself, in accordance with the aesthetic sentiment of my epoch.

In short, it was a way I found of organising and composing my drawing and painting with less conventional materials. To a large extent I can explain my developments in relation to the reality of my generation, when painters were faced with cubism and abstractionism. Juxtaposing of the aesthetic attributes of these art movements with elements from nature was what drew me toward new experimentation. I then chose to use natural topography as a surface for composition, taking mineral or plant elements found in nature as materials for aesthetic organisation, just as other artists use canvas, paints and brushes for their compositions.’

Burle Marx’s approach is clear in all aspects of his design work – from the design plans, which were works of art in themselves, to the bold, sinuous lines of his gardens, to the sculptural nature of the plants used within them.

Unlike many landscape architects and designers, Burle Marx nailed both the aesthetic and horticultural challenges of garden creation, favouring neither one nor the other, but understanding and celebrating the value of both in their contribution to a successful garden.

And successful gardens he did make. From public gardens surrounding many of the Oscar Niemeyer designed buildings in Brasília, to the famous waves of the Copacabana promenade at Rio de Janeiro beach, to many expansive private residences in and around São Paulo, Burle Marx was a prolific garden maker. And painter, cook, jewellery and fabric designer and more, more, more.

Olivo Gomes Residence, 1950 & 1966, image by Malcolm Raggett
Raul de Souza Martins Residence, 1983, image by Malcolm Raggett
Vargem Grande Fazenda, 1979, image by Malcolm Raggett
Edmundo Cavanellas Residence, 1954, image by Macolm Raggett

Of course, every passionate landscape architect and plant collector needs some dirt of their own and in 1949 Burle Marx acquired a large estate on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, accommodating his plant nursery, tropical plant collection, as well as his greatest canvas – his garden. The estate is now called Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, and is currently being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s also open to visitors (you probably should drop in if you’re in the ‘hood).

Burle Marx was wonderful for many reasons, but I guess what resonates with me most is the way he combined his passion for the environment with his approach to gardens as an artist. In his 1962 essay, The Garden as Art Form, he speaks of this, saying:

‘In some ways, we are fighting a defensive battle. A landscape architect should try to prevent destruction of the natural environment where it still exists; and, at the same time, create new landscapes with echoes of their original natural context, so as to build and conserve an artistic legacy worthy of those who will come later. 

A garden should be cohesive and self-contained; if it cannot include the landscape it had better reflect the environment in which it is born.

Very few people will have the privilege of encountering an unspoilt nature. Few will feel the anticipation of a forest at sunrise, or the vast silence of mountains or tundra, where man just passes by. There one finds peace that surpasses all understanding; peace that man is gradually eliminating from the face of the earth. We shall never again find the peace of Eden, but we can try to get closer to it by creating restful and uplifiting environments. It is not easy work. There will always be people ready to undermine or divert our purpose. If however, as each day goes by, at least one person pauses, for a moment, to look out and feel rewarded, our effort will not have been in vain.’

Roberto Burle Marx’s efforts were certainly not in vain. What an astounding man.

Featured image: ‘Itapecerica’, 1988, by Roberto Burle Marx, from the collection of the Museo do Senado (out of copyright).

All photographs used in this story are © Malcolm Raggett and used under the Creative Commons licence.

Excerpts from Roberto Burle Marx’s essays were found in Roberto Burle Marx. The Modernity of Landscape.

One of Burle Marx's landscape plans, image via Pinterest
Olivo Gomes Residence, 1950 & 1966, image by Malcolm Raggett
Raul de Souza Martins Residence, 1983, image by Malcolm Raggett
Edmundo Cavanellas Residence, 1954, image by Macolm Raggett
Vargem Grande Fazenda, 1979, image by Malcolm Raggett

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