The Artful Gardener: Exploring the Legacy of Roberto Burle Marx

Sustainability Architecture Art 4 min read
“One may even think of a plant as a note. Played in one chord, it will sound in a particular way; in another chord, its value will be altered. It can be legato, staccato, loud or soft, played on a tuba or on a violin. But it is the same note”
Credits: Pedro Araujo (TheZakMan)
Roberto Burle Marx, 1974. Source: 1stDibs | Photographer: Luiz Knud Correia de Araujo

Brazil’s most influential gardener, Roberto Burle Marx, a man who discovered and studied over 3,500 plant species, including 37 of which are named after himself, created several public and private parks, and plazas adding up to over 1,000 acres of land and attracting 6.5 million visitors a year. He was a man who practiced drawing, painting, engraving, sculpture, mosaic, tapestry, textile printing, stage design, and jewelry art – several of these works are now housed in the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art.). An excellent musician, he was a man known for holding concerts for several world leaders and luminaries in his private estate. No, Burle Marx wasn’t just an influential gardener, he was one of the most important creative forces in South America’s modernist movement in the mid-20th century.

Burle Marx painting in his studio
Burle Marx working in his studio. Credit: Claus Meyer / Tyba

Born in São Paulo, the youngest of four, Burle Marx grew up enraptured by Brazil and South America's fresh and thriving culture. Although he eventually became known for his work as a botanist and designer, he studied painting a the National School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro. Here he became acquainted with Lucio Costa, a soon-to-be leader in Brazilian architecture; Burle Marx designed his first several landscapes for Lucio, showcasing early his keen eye for design and use of space.

Marx’s early was work inspired by The Botanical Garden in Berlin, since their use of Brazilian flora reminded him of his childhood and pushed him to start collecting plants. Through this collection, his interest in Brazil’s native flora grew rapidly. He wanted to explore and experiment with the plants native to his home country.

Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Museum. Photograph © Charlie Cravero

To further his practices Marx purchased his first estate in Guaratiba, on the western fringes of Rio de Janeiro, widely known as Sítio Santo Antônio da Bica. Here, he led expeditions into Brazil’s rainforests, discovering over 40 species of tropical plants. Through various experiments, he studied these species extensively, their relations to one another, light, and materials. He became one of South America’s most important botanists.

His research and expeditions developed his love for nature immensely and also turned him into a de-facto leader in speaking out against the deforestation and urbanization of Brazil. He believed it was the job of landscape artists to preserve the beauty of nature.

Burle Marx and Oscar Niemeyer Casa Cavanelas
Casa Cavanelas, arq. Oscar Niemeyer (1954), Pedro do Rio, Brazil.

Burle Marx’s activism spoke a lot to his design language, he opted to bunch plants close, to multiply one plant in a large group of the same species to magnify its characteristic form. He used rock paths and painted walkways to intertwine with the landscape to become one. He often painted existing pavements and walkways in his landscape designs to blend in with the environment. His goal was to make landscape and urbanism indistinguishable from one another. Researcher at the IUAV University of Venice Barbara Boifava, an avid researcher of Marx's work, encapsulated the essence of his design language perfectly

“His projects exemplify a concept of the fourth nature, dictating a new category of nature...his work lies above all else, in the experimentation that underlies all of his projects.”

Drawing visual design cues from Cubism and Abrstractism movements, Burle Marx’s designs changed the landscape of Brazil’s modernist movement. His heart was imbued with the spirit of Brazil and it translated throughout his work. Most notably in arguably his most popular work, Jardim De Roberto Burle Marx

From the patterns along the Flamenco and Copacabana beaches in Brazil to the mosaic designs engraved along Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, you can see the imprint of Marx’s design today. His design language and style expand beyond the bounds of modern landscaping, inspiring the modern artisans of our time. Most notably Venezuelan conceptual artist Juan Araujo, French video artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and American experimental composer Arto Lindsay. All three came together to submit works to accompany a 1994 exhibit, twenty years after his death, honoring Marx and his impact on their mediums. Burle Marx was also a huge inspiration for American poet Elizabeth Bishop, citing his transformative use of plants and his structural awareness inspired her own “tapestried landscapes”.

The Sítio Santo Antônio da Bica, has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, post Marx’s death in 1994. It still houses the largest collection of Brazilian plants in a systematic form. Known widely as a prominent landscape artist, his activism and scientific research in Brazil remain a part of its culture among botanists and environmentalists. Most of his public gardens have worn down over time, but his design and cultural impact still stand the test of time. He stands above as one of the most influential and impactful artists of Brazil in the early 1900s you can see bits and pieces of his design language today. In fact, almost any type of modern landscape design has Burle Marx’s hand in it.

Copacabana Promenade, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Source: Wikimedia Commons
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