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Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

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Natural wonder

The exuberant career of the Brazilian designer Roberto Burle Marx brings the oft-overlooked field of landscape architecture to the foreground

The polymathic Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx is having a moment.

Following shows at the Jewish Museum in 2016 and the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2017, “Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx”—the largest exhibition ever put on at the New York Botanical Garden, and the first to display an entire outdoor garden—opened June 8. The NYBG, which is located in the Bronx, is easily accessible via the Botanical Garden station on the Metro-North’s Harlem line, or a short walk from several subways. In December, its Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a grand Victorian structure, hosts an annual train show with New York City landmarks rendered in bark. This summer, it has traveled south rather than to the North Pole.

“Brazilian Modern” completely takes over a stretch of lawn in front of the wedding cake-like conservatory, replacing that high-maintenance surface with a little slice of the tropics, 1950s style. Burle Marx died in 1994, so Miami-based landscape architect Raymond Jungles was called in to create a Burle Marx remix, combining plants, patterns, and architectural fragments into a lush and dramatic pastiche.

“Burle Marx’s work is immortal,” says Jungles, a protege of Burle Marx and frequent visitor to his experimental estate between 1982 and 1994. Burle Marx’s paintings, drawings, and tapestries—several key examples of which are being shown in the NYBG’s art gallery— are well worth seeing, but his work is impossible to understand without a living, growing experience.

You walk on asphalt painted in black-and-white waves, a reference to Burle Marx’s most famous work, the stone pavements along the beachfront Copacabana in Rio. Deep beds of red, green, black and purple plants, also set in bands of color, are anchored by palm trees native to Brazil, Cuba, and Florida. At the end of the walkway, a faux-concrete fountain, assembled by some of New York’s best set designers, was inspired by a Brutalist bas-relief Burle Marx designed for the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paulo. The water gushing from one of its slots adds moisture to the air and gives the garden a sonic setting, blocking out other noise.

Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

Inside the greenhouse, an Explorer’s Garden smells like no place else in New York City—herbal, spicy, and damp, thanks to a unique horticultural array. Created with Francisca Coelho, former NYBG vice president of glasshouses and exhibitions, the garden contains two concrete-block fountains flanking a rainforest’s worth of plants, including many collected by and named for Burle Marx.

Outside, next to the rectangular lily pools, there’s a feature wall of textured staghorn ferns and bromeliads. “Anywhere that Burle Marx could put a cool plant, he would put a cool plant,” says Todd Forest, NYBG vice president for horticulture and living collections. When the water temperature hits 80 degrees, the gardeners will add Victoria amazonica to the pool, a tropical water lily whose leaves can grow up to nine feet across.

Burle Marx’s Northern Hemisphere rediscovery coincides with a burgeoning appreciation for all of the materials he skillfully employed in his lifetime. Instagram has acquainted the world with the black-and-white Lisbon pavements that inspired Burle Marx’s patterned oceanfront promenade. The blue-and-white glazed tile in Burle Marx’s studio would not look out of place in a Venice, California, coffee shop. His concrete bas-reliefs are brutal, with the dramatic contrast of light and shadows the camera loves.

There is a decided hit of tropicalismo in millennials’ new passion for plants, dominated by the huge elephant’s-ear leaves that figure prominently in many Burle Marx gardens. Native Brazilian plants offer tremendous opportunity for texture, color, and contrast. Even in overhead shots, intended to show off Burle Marx’s signature curving lines, you just want to pet the gardens like a shag rug.

When Jungles’s firm was hired to design the landscape for Foster + Partners’ Faena House in Miami, the inspiration images project architect Brandon Haw showed him were all Burle Marx’s work. “But we don’t ever try to copy him in our own work,” Jungles says. He prefers to take a broader lesson from the mestre: “He was preaching to conserve the planet. People need to pull together and preserve what’s possible, preserve native plants within the urban environment.”

Roberto Burle Marx during a botanical expedition in Ecuador, 1974.
Photograph by Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo, Archive of Luiz Antonio Correia de Araújo

Burle Marx was born in São Paulo in 1909 to a German Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. His father, Wilhelm Marx, was from Trier, birthplace of Karl Marx, and he may have been related to the father of Communism. He was encouraged in his love of plants by his mother, Cecilia, and his governess, Ana Piascek. “When I started to bring in plants from the wild,” Burle Marx recalled, “[my mother] never said, ‘Oh, Roberto, these are weeds!’ She would say: ‘Roberto, I have never seen such a beautiful thing, it is a kind of divine manifestation.’”

Burle Marx began his career as a painter, hanging out in the Brazilian equivalent of Montmartre with artists and intellectuals. But on a 1928 trip to Berlin, he was entranced by the tropical plants at the Dahlem Botanical Gardens; when he returned home, he began to experiment in his own backyard.

In 1934 he was appointed head of the Department of Parks and Gardens in Recife. His first park designs were formal and European, but he was careful to use plants native to Brazil—the country is home to more than 50,000 species—which could have included Amazon palms, Atlantic coast bromeliads, or thorny vegetation from dry Caatinga. He was dismissed from the position, however, when he proposed replacing a monument celebrating a Portuguese victory over the Dutch with a sculpture of a native woman bathing.

But eventually, the rise of modernism in Brazil brought him clients who wanted something new, buildings, gardens, and sculpture with elements specific to the nation and without (or with more recent) references to Europe.

When Burle Marx died in 1994, his New York Times obituary credited him with nearly 3,000 landscape projects over a 60-year career. Most were in Brazil, but he also designed Caracas’s Parque del Este, a section of Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard, and gardens at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. His only permanent U.S. project is the Cascade Garden at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. In his later years he became an environmental activist, speaking out against the ongoing deforestation of his country.

In the catalog for the Jewish Museum’s 2016 exhibition, curator Jens Hoffmann asks architectural photographer Luisa Lambri, who’s featured in the book, when she first encountered Burle Marx’s work. “When I started photographing many of the iconic mid-century buildings in Brazil by Costa and Niemeyer,” she says, “Burle Marx’s gardens often ended up being very prominent in the photographs.”

She captured his work by accident, because traditionally, documentation and appreciation of the architecture comes first. But the same building that allowed Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer to step on to the international stage also launched Burle Marx: The Ministry of Education and Health in Rio (1937-42), a Corbusian concrete slab, also housed a full complement of murals, tiles, sculpture, and gardens intended to soften and enliven the rectilinear architecture. You can read the leafy foreground in the striking period photographs as so much parsley, or you can recognize it as art itself. The three men (plus dozens of others) would go on to design Brasilia, a new modernist capital in the center of the country. (For more on utopian visions like Brasilia, listen to Curbed’s new podcast Nice Try!)

Hoffmann and co-curator Claudia J. Nahson write of the Ministry, “Burle Marx’s design creates a thoroughly modern space of beauty: strong curvilinear shapes and solid areas of colorful vegetation make a perfect foil for the rational architecture of the International Style. His plan, too, is a work of modernism, vividly painted and highly styled.”

When Burle Marx’s work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991, it was the first time the museum had given a landscape architect a solo show—and he’s still the only one. The exhibition also featured an unusually dramatic installation for the museum: a tuft of real greenery in the middle of the gallery, backed by a wall-size photograph of Burle Marx’s recently completed water garden at Fazenda Vargem Grande in São Paulo. Today we would call that an Instagram moment. The indoor garden was installed by Jungles, then age 27, in one 10-hour day, with a truckful of plants from Florida.

The catalog for the 1991 show suggested renewed interest in landscape in the early 1990s. If this were true, it was quickly extinguished. MoMA’s 2005 group show “Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape” more decisively set the table for the prominence of landscape architects today, and included the work of firms with recent New York work, including James Corner Field Operations, Ken Smith Landscape Architect, Peter Walker, and West 8.

North American postwar landscape architecture has typically had a harder edge, taking its allées from French neoclassicism and its curves from Japanese rock gardens. The only visual overlap I see between the North and South American canons is in the grounds of the 1958 Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, where landscape architect Dan Kiley created a checkerboard of greens outside the kitchen windows that is similar to Burle Marx’s gridded lawn at the Edmundo Cavanellas residence in Petropolis (1954).

Interestingly, Burle Marx did spend time with Ian McHarg, founder of the University of Pennsylvania’s landscape architecture department. “I see him as very McHarg-ian,” Jungles says. “Design with nature. He knew how to put plants where they would do well and thrive.”

Visitors learn about the artist’s estate, where he lived, worked and entertained friends and colleagues.
Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

After dancing across the wavy asphalt and smelling the flowers, the NYBG exhibition offers two more Burle Marxist treats. From 1949 on, Burle Marx used his estate—sitio in Portuguese—as a place to rest, experiment, and house his collections. He had rooms filled with folk art, gardens stocked with plants from across the continent, and a studio lined with blue-and-white hand-painted tile.

On the fourth floor of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, there’s a giant portrait of Burle Marx in his studio blown up on one wall, flanked by two panels half-covered in more tile images. On a long table, boxes of pencils in 10 shades of blue sit next to squares of paper: “Create your own azulejo to complete Burle Marx’s design,” it reads.

Is it that simple? Hardly. But it is impossible not to be inspired to make something, plant something, or paint something after getting a peek into the abundant aesthetic world of Burle Marx.

Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx” is on view through September 29 at the New York Botanical Garden.


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