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A detail of Roberto Burle Marx’s design for the garden of the Ministry of the Army in Brasília from the early 1970s, image ArtsLife
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Roberto Burle Marx: an end to the deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest

In conversation with Irish and Italian professors Gareth Doherty and Barbara Boifava, respectively, on Roberto Burle Marx’s landscapes and urban ideologies

Landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx

As the fourth son to a French-Brazilian Catholic mother from Brazil’s upper class and an emigrant German Jewish father from the city of Trier, Germany, Roberto Burle Marx was born and raised in Brazil. Over the span of his career, he dedicated himself to stopping the destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Latin America’s leading twentieth century landscape architect and a pioneer of the modern arts, Burle Marx was witness to different forms of cultural expression, combining city values and landscapes at a time when professional specialization was becoming extensive. Professor Gareth Doherty, Director of the Master in Landscape Architecture Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and Professor Barbara Boifava, who carried out research as at the Iuav University of Venice, both studied Burle Marx’s work, walking us through an in-depth study on the Brazilian character that he instilled in his projects all over the world. 

Gareth Doherty commences, «at the time of Burle Marx’s birth in 1909, Brazil was emerging as a new Republic; founded just twenty years earlier and searching for an identity. This is one of the reasons the Modern movement was evident in Brazil, epitomized through Brasilia. Burle Marx was first confronted with the wealth of native Brazilian flora in the Dahlem Botanic Gardens in Berlin. Over time he instilled Brazilian character in his work, through the use of plants. Burle Marx’s public landscapes are filled with activities as people go about their everyday lives. He tells us that the purpose of the garden is to be a spatial condition of community life.

The Garden as a Way of Life, p.124». A dabbler in botany and an expert on horticulture, Burle Marx collected an ensemble of around 3,500 plant species, which he in return donated to the Brazilian government. He was also gifted in his ability to speak the many languages imperative to convey his ideas to outsiders, and it was through these discoveries that he was, from then on, able to forge the field of landscape architecture in Brazil; a convoluted approach to life with an endless boundary. Displaying the evolution of historical and cultural importance and comprehension throughout time, he took into consideration the society and the environment as an act of inclusion. 

Landscape and its connections with architecture and the urban scenario

Through her research on the topic of landscape and its connections with architecture and the urban scenario, Boifava explains Burle Marx’s syntax of the modern fourth nature. «His projects exemplify a concept of the fourth nature, dictating a new category of nature: the nature of the city. The three different categories of nature already described in the literature of land- scape studies and specifically by landscape historian John Dixon Hunt: a first nature, under- stood as wild and unspoilt, is linked to a second nature defined by Cicero as cultural landscape, a man-made and productive nature shaped by human activity. These two categories are joined by the third nature of the garden, shaped for aesthetic purposes and conceived as a combination of nature and culture. A fourth nature is distinguished by the idea of a recognized ecological paradigm and staging a new functional aesthetic of gardens and urban landscapes».

With present problems such as loss of history, deforestation, waste lands, pollution and habitat degradation, dense communities, subcultures and the shrinking of cities bring stress, instability and fragility to societies. «Burle Marx’s work lies, above all else, in the experimentation that underlies all his projects, interpreting the specific tropical nature – from the limited scale of the toit-jardin to the subsequent projects for private gardens, parkways, public squares and large urban parks – giving reason for a continuum in the invention of a modern landscape»

Site Plan of Ibrirapuera Park Project, Sao Paulo, Brazil 1953, image ArtsLife
Site Plan of Ibrirapuera Park Project, Sao Paulo, Brazil 1953, image ArtsLife

Burle Marx’s examination and collection of indigenous species of plants

Burle Marx arranged expeditions across Brazil to recover, examine and collect indigenous species of plants. Along with a group of scientists, designers and gardeners, he discovered over forty tropical plants, some of which bear his name. On these trips, Burle Marx grasped the magnitude of deforestation and urbanization all throughout regions of Brazil, which gave him more of an incentive to become an advocate for the conservation and safeguarding of Brazilian forest lands.

From his work editing the book titled Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism, Doherty explains, «Burle Marx believed that landscape architects have the responsibility of seeking social and environmental justice. Through the plant-hunting expeditions he conducted with friends and colleagues in the Brazilian interior. He was exposed to environmentally destructive practices that he protested. He had to challenge the destruction of the Amazon and other landscapes and the eradication of native Brazilian flora from their habitats. In a lecture, The Garden as a Form of Art, he says it is for the landscape architect to try and prevent the destruction of the natural countryside».

His collection of plant life in the Sítio was to be the starting point to render a modern status applicable at a larger urban scale of the city. Doherty analyzes, «the Sítio is located about one and a half hours from the city of Rio and was a testing ground. There, Burle Marx lived and painted, entertained guests, and tested different plants and materials by observing them in relation to other plants and materials, volumes, textures, light and time. The chácara (small farm), located next to the Sítio, propagated the plants for the landscapes that Burle Marx designed, from specimens collected from the countryside and interior. They related to the professional design office in Rio, and the maintenance crew that took care of many of the private gardens. This full-service led to a creative design process that ranged from plant propagation, design and maintenance»

Burle Marx’s landscape vocabulary

The research conducted at Sítio, which was just recently named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was enhanced by some of the scientific expeditions conducted to seek out botanical species throughout the regions of Brazil, increasing Burle Marx’s landscape vocabulary. Boifava explains, «in 1949, the landscape architect created a large ecological-experimental laboratory at the Sítio, which still houses the largest collection of Brazilian live plants in systematic form. In this open-air laboratory, a botanical garden, the multifaceted Brazilian artist practiced disciplines including drawing, painting, engraving, sculpture, mosaic, tapestry, textile printing, stage design and jewelry art. An amateur botanist and experienced horticulturist, Burle Marx was dedicated to his observation of plant associations that he called artificial ecological associations. Synthesizing scientific experience and artistic creation, his plant collection became the seed for the construction of reproducible plant and mineral elements aimed at a new socio-cultural image in landscape design and reflecting a partially lost Latin American tradition».

He acknowledged the detriment and threat of rapid deforestation posed in the Amazon, speaking publicly about the need to protect Brazil’s native forests and that the deconstruction of these natural environments was not the solution. In an interview conducted in 1989, he confessed, «I am concerned about what is happening to the world’s natural resources and, in particular, to the Amazon region. It is a crime that thirty percent of the virgin forests are dying. Brazilians are largely responsible, but foreigners are also exploiting the region». 

Exploring and using plant species that are native to Brazil and Latin America, supporting the conservation and awareness of the native flora, and concurrently seeking and experimenting with versatile plants from all over the world was Burle Marx’s modus operandi. Thanks to his knowledge of botany and geology, his selection of trees, shrubs and flowers in various sizes and colors created a three-dimensional configurative beauty, which later on became one of the basic trademarks of typical Brazilian landscape architecture. With his search to find harmonious balance in landscapes, he managed to offer solutions; imposing aesthetic orders on the botanical environment in an effort to consolidate a garden with its outdoors. «Burle Marx introduced a portion of tropical forest into the city, designing a composition of parterres with amoeboid shapes generated by the juxtaposition of the native plants used, creating unusual spatial and perceptive effects in the city which translate the identity significance of South American flora»

Pavement design – Copacabana beach promenade 

Between 1961 and 1972, the City of Rio de Janeiro welcomed landscape architect, Burle Marx, to examine the relationship between the city and nature by renovating the beachfront avenue in Copacabana. Both the actual beach and avenue were relocated to make room for the pedestrian and vehicular traffic. On the side closest to the city, he designed a 100 foot wide pavement, along which an array of islands were established as a space for rest and social interaction. He omitted the typical concept of adding continuous lines of trees and, instead, designed an intricate composition incorporating the Portuguese tradition, well known in the city of Rio, of covering the pavements with black and white mosaic pieces exemplifying the ocean waves.

He had his own way of painting with trees to create comprehensive and asymmetric compositions. He forged novel and artistic cohesion, both in terms of form and color, asserting the use of original and uncommon techniques that challenged the ordinary interpretation of tropical landscapes, as well as using patterns of exaggerated scales, reflected in this case study with the use of Portuguese wave patterns. Burle Marx conveyed the curves of nature in an urban construction for the city, expanding to four kilometers in length along the Copacabana beach. The design was about movement: both the literal footfall of the Brazilian citizens and the curving, organic shapes of the promenade. Posing as the pinnacle of visually stimulating public space, one does not simply walk the promenade; one dances to the beat of the tango which comes from its visual rhythms. 

Photography Leonardo Finotti

Marx’s canvas was painting 

Boifava divulges, «Burle Marx defines the profile of a modern urban parkway squeezed between the ocean and the vertical city. This beachfront comes to life with the black and white sinusoidal wave pattern adopted from the Portuguese mosaic paving tradition. Period photographs show that this pattern originally existed along Copacabana beach but ran perpendicular to the waves of the sea. Copacabana represents the apex of an all-encompassing garden, as the architect Pietro Maria Bardi defined in 1964, author of the first monograph on Roberto Burle Marx, which marks the entire Atlantic front of Rio and which still gives us the image of a modern park system».

These black, white and reddish-brown cobblestones of five by five centimeters were originally inspired by the Portuguese Praça do Rocio in Lisbon, symbolizing the meeting of the waters of the Tejo River and the sea and commemorating floods in Lisbon during the eighteenth century.  GD The composition of waves seems as if Burle Marx was painting a canvas that stretched out three kilometers long, retaining the traditional wavy, serpent-like pattern of the mosaic pavement covering the beachfront. It was the landscape architect’s orchestration of the city’s promenades and green spaces that aided in devising Rio de Janeiro’s singular identity, one that is still prevalent until this day.

In his work in Parque del Este Burle Marx was able to confer his idea of urban dimension in the Venezuelan nature. This park stands as one of the most recognized urban green areas in Latin America of the twentieth century. Doherty affirms that the landscape architect sees landscape and urbanism as one entity, «he wanted to create gardens for people and bring, in his words, dignity to their way of life. Burle Marx tells us that the function of the landscape architect today is to make known the part a garden has to play in the cities of our lives, in that sense he did not distinguish between landscape and urban»

About urban design – Parque del Este 

Located in Caracas, Venezuela, with an area of 200 acres and 3.5 million visitors per year, is Parque del Este. Built for the development of character, not only as a response to the unhealthy living conditions of the industrial city, it distinguished the evolution of the city. This project allowed the public parks of Caracas to play a different role in the urban history of the city, from the cultured French urbanism of the twentieth-century Belle Époque to the buoyant tropicalism of the modern era of the 1950s. In his own words, Roberto Burle Marx described the Parque del Este as a garden of autochthonous Venezuelan plants.

The park neither pursues the introspective picturesque nineteenth-century nor the sensibly programmed early-to-mid twentieth-century park models, and the relationship between the visitor and the landscape is not one that fixates on the material encounters of the landscape. The plant collections in the park are clustered together. The conceptual idea behind it was to multiply one plant in a large group of the same species to magnify its characteristic form, making it easy for people to notice them. The xerophytic garden that is home to plants like euphorbias, aloes, agaves, and yuccas; the hygrophytic garden that displays aquatic plants, such as Nymphea and Thalias; the palmetum garden that represents the tropical rainforest; the arboretum garden that hosts a myriad of palms, autochthonous trees; and the patios of the garden of the urban courtyard.

«Exotic botanical specimens were used to enhance the visual and figurative richness of the plant collections. In a lecture given in 1954 at the School of Design North Carolina State College, Burle Marx stated: «wherever we find a gap in our plant vocabulary, this can be filled by an exotic plant which harmonizes with the landscape. These tropical stage sets were conceived to safeguard and enrich the city’s ecosystem, preventing the transformation and destruction of an environment whose preservation could only be guaranteed by ecological awareness».

A viveiro or a nursery area within Parque del Este

In addition, Burle Marx pursued the necessity of forming a viveiro or a nursery area within the park, that he dedicated to the continuous supply of otherwise difficult-to-find plants.This was the place where the live material gathered from his excursions would be accommodated and kept under observation for several months, before being uprooted on site. The collection of plants was considered a sequence of ecological gardens; complex plant compositions of, what Burle Marx called artificial ecological associations, exotic plants from multiple tropical countries that form a language. In Parque del Este the forest was purposed to shield the growth of an entirely new community of native and non-native species. «Burle Marx’s curves are particular, it is difficult to emulate his work in any formal sense. It is the multifaceted relationships between activism, art, botany, conservation, ethics and texture, that make Burle Marx’s landscape architecture successful and interesting. The multi-dimensional land- scape architect engaged in the environmental, human, and aesthetic ecologies in his projects, believing that it was imperative to have a garden play a role in cities». In 1985, at the end of his life, Burle Marx donated his property – in trust of prosperity – to the Brazilian government and in 1994 died at his home. Boifava concludes, «each project BB stages the celebration of a biodiversity that becomes an expression of Brazilian modernity. In this way, Burle Marx enriched the plant vocabulary by using new forms and colors that translat- ed aesthetic and plastic intentions, demonstrating limitations inherent in botanical research and experimentation characterized by an ecological disposition towards nature as a primary aspect of Brazilian modernist identity and culture». 

Gareth Doherty 

 Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Director of the Master in Landscape Architecture Program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He received the Doctor of Design degree from Harvard GSD and his Master of Landscape Architecture and Certificate in Urban Design from the University of Pennsylvania. He earned masters and undergraduate degrees from University College Dublin. He has built several landscape architectural projects, edited books that include Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism and wrote a book Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State (University of California Press, 2017).

Barbara Boifava 

Architectural historian with a PhD in History of Architecture and Urban planning from Iuav University of Venice where she currently teaches and carries out research. For many years her research was focused on landscape design in Brazil and on the relationship between landscape and city in the contemporary era, which led her to having a hand in editing the publication of the book Roberto Burle Marx: Towards a Modern Tropical Landscape II Poligrafo, Padua 2014

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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