‘Who he?’ will ask many a general reader on seeing the name of the Brazilian designer Roberto Burle (pronounced ‘Burly’) Marx (1909–94). He was arguably the greatest landscape architect of the 20th century, but it is symptomatic of the dubious status of that profession that he is so little known outside his native country and a small design coterie.
The authors of this handsome book – which also serves as the catalogue to a touring exhibition currently at the Jewish Museum in New York, from where it will move to Berlin and Rio de Janeiro – suggest that this has something to do with Europeans’ continuing ignorance of matters Latin American. But it goes deeper than that. It’s not uncommon to come across artists and even professional designers in other disciplines who ask, ‘So what is landscape architecture?’ The profession itself must bear much of the blame for this state of affairs, having failed to inveigle itself into public consciousness.
Burle Marx is important because he fused a background in painting and an affinity with modernist architecture and design with a profound knowledge of the flora of Brazil – he personally discovered around fifty plant species on his expeditions. The result is a portfolio of completed designs that seem embedded in the natural world but are also unmistakably ‘modern’ in their appeal. The juxtaposition of a strong pattern and rich colour blocks, set against a jungle backdrop, is immensely satisfying in an apparently primal way. No one anywhere has managed to pull off a similar trick so convincingly. Living walls or plant-filled balconies appended to modernist-inflected buildings come across only as so much greenwash. And the trend in contemporary planting that sees garden designers seeking to replicate ‘plant communities’ or even entire landscape habitats seems disingenuous by way of comparison.
A typical Burle Marx public landscape or private garden consists of a ground plan of amorphous planting beds that on paper resemble a Joan Miró painting, set within a geometric structure that is reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s work. These are not pat comparisons. From childhood Burle Marx was steeped in the European artistic scene, his cultured family in Rio de Janeiro playing host to such visitors as Le Corbusier and Arthur Rubinstein, as well as leading Brazilian architects, such as Lúcio Costa, who became both his and Oscar Niemeyer’s mentor. The three of them collaborated on projects in the new city of Brasília, much of which was created from the ground up in a matter of four years.
Burle Marx began as a painter, producing competent if somewhat underpowered work that owed much to the example of Picasso. His artistic awakening occurred in 1928, when he was nineteen and his family decamped to Berlin for a year and a half (his father was German). The crucial moment was a visit to Berlin’s Botanical Garden, where – in one of those piquant paradoxes of colonialism – he came to appreciate for the first time the plant life back in his native country, which was systematically presented in Germany in generic beds and glasshouses. In Brazil, garden style was still in hock to European formal models, with native plants very much flora non grata. It reminds us that in a post-colonial reading every garden is a political act, every plant a political prisoner.
Burle Marx returned to Brazil full of excitement about the writhing, succulent, bright-flowered plant life that flourished in the jungle ‘wilderness’ close to the cities. Having given up his doomed painting career, he secured a job as head of parks in the city of Recife. He did not last long in this post – partly because he insisted on replacing formal bedding with native cactus species – but by that time he was building up a garden design practice. He had found his métier.
This book chronicles a development that began with an astonishing early commission, the garden of the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio (1938). This set a style from which he barely diverged for the next half-century. Many of his landscapes complement modernist buildings. Due emphasis is given here to highlights of his work: the Copacabana beach front, his most celebrated creation, with its swirling pavement pattern; the garden of the Monteiro residence in Corrêas; and his own house and garden near Rio, which he gave to the nation ten years before his death. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ approach that lacks detail and is frequently platitudinous (the authors are not landscape specialists). While it is interesting to see the jewellery, stage sets, costumes, tapestries, tilework and stained glass Burle Marx created, the authors do not seem to realise that all this looks positively dated next to his landscape work, which remains highly original.
The one new subject that is properly explored is the designer’s Jewish heritage. Burle Marx’s father was a secular Jew who agreed to the demand of his wife’s family that his children should be raised as Catholics. Late in life Burle Marx appears to have reconnected with his Jewish heritage and worked on several landscapes at synagogues, which appear restrained to the point of severity. Claudia Nahson’s detailed essay on this topic is a serious addition to scholarship.
There have been many books about Roberto Burle Marx and we await the definitive study. In the meantime this serves as a compendium of the artist-designer’s work, illustrating the sheer range of his interests while revealing a late career turn towards spiritual subject matters.