Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Landscape Designer Brillante

by Kim Steele

Photograph © Leonardo Finotti.

Mineral roof garden, Banco Safra headquarters, São Paulo, designed by
Roberto Burle Marx, 1983, Photograph © Leonardo Finotti

There was much trepidation as the 2016 Olympics approached; everything from security, Zika, to running water and accommodations. Several stories appeared in The New York Times about assaults, and robbery. As the date approached, the Torch Bearer was stoned and ridiculed because of all the offenses to the citizens of Brazil — the displacement of people from the favelas; and the expenses to host, which could be better spent on the citizens. The most remarkable element was the political turmoil — the past President was impeached and the current one is under investigation for bribery.

This aside, now a days into it, things are going well. The “Dream Team” (US basketball team) is lollygagging on a luxury yacht. And, this is a good time to focus on one of the greatest designers of the last century: Roberto Burle Marx, now exhibiting at the Jewish Museum in New York until September 18th then traveling to Berlin, and then to Museu de Arte do Rio, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rarely has a designer left such a deft mark on a landscape as Roberto Burle Marx did in Rio de Janeiro. I remember gazing down from my hotel, many years ago on the Copacabana shoreline, at the mesmerizing sidewalk he created that serpentines along the shoreline…wondering who created that?

© Hedgecoe/TopFoto/The Image Works

Portrait of Roberto Burle Marx, courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York, © Hedgecoe/TopFoto/The Image Works

Burle Marx’s art inhabits a rare space between the rational and the lyrical. Nature’s variability was for him a liberating force: in a sixty-year career he designed over two thousand gardens worldwide, discovered close to fifty plant species, advocated passionately for the environment, and made paintings and objects of exuberant, rare beauty. Burle Marx, who called himself  “the poet of his own life,” left the world a poetic legacy. (source: Jewish Museum, NY)

Burle Marx was a true Modernist from the 1930’s. Embracing various media and stylistic modalities: Nature, Industry, Graphics and Color. He created very unique and inviting natural spaces that are as vital today as they were in the 1950’s. He elevated Landscape Architecture to a new level, pushing old vernaculars (European) to fresh ground-eschewing symmetry, and introducing a primeval energy that resonates with jazz and folk art.

Burle Marx was a painter and sculptor; a designer of textiles, jewelry, theater sets, and costumes; a ceramicist and stained-glass artist. Born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Burle Marx’s first landscaping inspirations came while studying painting in Germany, where he often visited the Botanical Garden in Berlin and first learned about Brazil’s native flora.

He gained prominence by collaborating with Brazil’s most prominent artists of the day, specifically the tile artist Cândido Potinari, and Oscar Niemeyer-to design the Pampulha in Rio, in 1942.

Pampulha Architectural Complex, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,

Burle Marx began taking expeditions into the Brazilian rain forest with botanists, landscape architects, architects and other researchers to gather plant specimens.

At least 50 plants bear his name.

His style borrows from Cubism and Abstraction, but his greatest inspiration was: Anti-mimesis, a philosophical position that holds the direct opposite of Aristotelian mimesis. Its most notable proponent was Oscar Wilde, who opined in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” In the essay, written as a Platonic dialogue, Wilde holds that anti-mimesis, “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.”

© Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved

Victoria Amazonica Water Lilies, Garden of the Fazenda Vargem Grande, Clemente Gomes residence, Areias, 1979

His 1979 plan for the private garden of Fazenda Vargem Grande (Clemente Gomes residence on the grounds of an arid coffee plantation) in Areias highlighted the remarkable and expansive Victoria Amazonica water lilies. Throughout his life, Burle Marx advocated passionately for the environment. To this day, Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, the artist’s former home, preserves his collection of tropical and semitropical plants-one of the largest in the world.

Burle Marx collaborated with the great design minds of his day, including Le Corbusier.

Copyright© Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro

Roberto Burle Marx with Le Corbusier during a luncheon in the architect’s honor at the home of Burle Marx, 1962, Copyright© Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro

While studying in Berlin he soaked up Picasso, van Gogh’s elaborate landscapes, and most importantly the German Expressionism movement. Upon returning to Brazil in the 1930’s Burle Marx turned his attention from painting to horticulture. One of his teachers, Lucio Costa, (future designer of Brasília), a modernist architect, secured him a commission to design his first garden. He realized that plants and ink both express art forms.

Burle Marx’s first most prominent design, with Le Corbusier as his advisor, was the Gardens of the Ministry of Education and Health, designed by Costa, with assistance by young Oscar Niemeyer. Here for the first time, he employed only indigenous vegetation, and introduced his hallmark sensuous curves.

Photo: Cesar Barreto

Gardens of the Ministry of Education and Health, designed by Roberto Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Here began Burle Marx’s love for saturated colors. Adopting this pallet, he then created his most memorial project, The Avenida Atlântica along the infamous Copacabana shoreline, in Rio. He created a canvas of extravagance, employing and abstract pattern of quilting white, black and earth-toned paving stones into an undulating wave of a magic public space–like a musical score that became the symbol of Rio and now the 2016 Olympics.

Credit Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro

Avenida Atlântica, designed in 1970 for the Copacabana shoreline in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil













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