Roberto Burle Marx | book review

Roberto Burle Marx - The Modernity of Landscape | Actar, 2011

MovingCities received a copy of “Roberto Burle Marx – The Modernity of Landscape(ACTAR 2011). The 350-page publication is a insightful introduction to this great Brazilian landscape architect, poet, gardener, painter etc.. and the role of and design with vegetation in the tropical climate. At some points the book is repetitive, but a delicate graphical design and great images make up for this. A review.

A short blurb from the publisher explains the background and objective of the book:

Roberto Burle Marx (São Paulo, 1909-Rio de Janeiro, 1994) is known as a landscape architect, but also as a painter, plantsman, gardener, and jewellery designer, tapestry designer, in short, a multitalented artist. He considered the garden to be one of the fine arts, as “the adaptation of the biome to civilisation’s natural requirements.” This book introduces the realm of the full sensory experience. Burle Marx’s work with plants becomes highly pictorial-everything is drawn, coloured and constructed. In this symbiosis between aesthetics and botany, Burle Marx is the master of both species and spaces. His work is the embodiment of the “nature-city,” a concept developed from the garden cities of the late 19th century, which has become compromised in the 21st century due to the compact city model. This new publication focuses on Burle Marx’s scientific interest in the landscape and his relationship with the environment.

The opening essay – entitled ‘The permanence of the Unstable’ – has all ingredients that in other contributions are being cannibalized. It talks about Burle Marx’s now legendary trip to Germany and his discovery of, and consequent fascination for, Brazilian plant species in the Berlin-Dahlem botanical gardens. Further on it contextualizes his work with contemporaries such as Luis Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Reidy and Jorge Moreira, explains the notion of Brazilian modernism and the influence of and reaction upon the work and ideas by Le Corbusier. It quotes Burle Marx on bringing the concepts of painting and planting together: ‘I decided to take the natural terrain as a surface for the composition, and the found elements of nature – minerals, plants – as materials for the visual organization, just as much as any artist seeks to render his composition with canvas, paint brushes and paints.

What is very interesting about the method of working of Burle Marx – and we wanted to hear more about this in the book – are his expeditions in company of the leading botanists of the time to some of the most secluded natural habitats in Brazil and other tropical countries, from which he brought back many new species. The book explains the implications and objectives of these trips as following:

Burle Marx discovered about a hundred plants unknown to science, which were named for him or named based on his suggestions. Collaborating with these researchers compensated for his lack of knowledge of taxonomy, and he vehemently rejected the epithet of botanist or ecologist that was often mistakenly attributed to him. “I’m not a botanist. All I know about is botany applied to gardens, which is the part that interests me,” he said.

Pampulha, Belo Horizonte [1941-45] [source; Malcom Raggett Photography]

Alberto Kronsforth Residence, Teresopolis [1955] [source; Malcom Raggett Photography]

Landscape Design for Saenz Pena Square [1948]

The publication has an amazing set our plans, painting and photographs of a couple of the key-projects in Burle Marx’s long career: Pampulha Lake Complex, Gardens of the Ministry of Justice [Brasilia], Six patios for the UNESCO headquarters [Paris], Avenida Atlantica [Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro] and the Garden of the Francisco Pignatari Residence [São Paulo] to name a few.

The collected essays are readable, although also presenting a highly repetitive series of topics, stories and examples. These contributions give the work a context, but oftentimes sharpness in analysis is lacking and comparative studies with architects or landscape designers working in tropical climates are absent.

Interesting to read is Burle Marx’s response to the grandiose ideas Le Corbusier had in mind for the Brazilian landscape and its cities. What stands out is the interest in the achievements and objective of the modern movement as a cultural and critical context but also the need to adapt these theories to the local Brazilian condition. One key element is the roof-garden, described in the book as ‘a symbol of twentieth-century modernity, the roof garden demonstrate a new spatial ideology as well as technological advances in reinforced concrete’. Burle Marx treatment of these surfaces stands though in sharp contrast to the ‘neutral wildness’ that Le Corbusier was known for, and shifts the design of them – as Dorothée Imbert explains in ‘Parterres en l’air: Roberto Burle Marx and the Modernist Roof Garden’ – more in the direction of ‘organic patterns and tropical luxuriance (…) Ultimately, the roof garden acted, and perhaps continues to act, as a synecdoche. It stands for idealized nature and abstract art, a site that does not exist, alternately longing for the ground plane and exalting the sky – it is a landscape.

What interest us in this book is that it talks about working and design in a tropical context [see also our review of ‘Tropical Modernity’] but never the words really heat up or cool down, never makes one intellectually sweat or find coolness in the breeze of buildings that are passing by. At moments one start understanding the tension that rises between the ideal of building new types of cities in Brazil and the need to blend these with the surrounding vegetation. It is this core of his work that is only vaguely touched upon. Like the jungle, the tropical city is at best when uncultivated elements are incorporated as Valerie Fraser writes in ‘Cannibalizing Le Corbusier: The MES Gardens’:

In interviews Burle Marx like to tell stories about how patrons and connoisseurs were horrified to find a garden elaborately planted with what they considered to be uncultivated plants, i.e. common (or garden) weeds. (…) In Rio de Janeiro, the fear was of the city’s reverting not to desert but to jungle, and to incorporate tropical plants into the parks and gardens of a city that was perpetually threatened with invasion by vegetation cascading down the mountain slopes was also truly radical. Burle Marx, a lifelong socialist, believed that “a garden must have didactic qualities. From a garden one can disseminate a great deal of knowledge encouraging people to live better.”

Oftentimes it is a pity that the originality in thinking, approach and design of Burle Marx is not presented in a more clear and evocative manner, or explained better. On the contrary, oftentimes the speculations of some authors render his persona and professional attitude opaque and bleak. In the end we are still left with a couple of questions that the book has failed to address. Amongst these is one about the person Burle Marx: who is the man behind the moustache?

Roberto Burle Marx [source;]

Ibirapuera Park Project, São Paulo, Brazil, Perspective [source; moma collection]

Overall, as an introduction to the work of Burle Marx the book suffers basically from too much text; the way Burle Marx has carefully discovered, edited, selected and organized various plants and species together should have been the point of departure to revive his design and discourse, which are still highly relevant for today’s design in tropical climates. The photography of the work is stunning; it makes one want to step into the pages and wander around in the evolving and transformative tropical world that Burle Marx has created. Time for a re-visit!


Roberto Burle Marx – The Modernity of Landscape, edited by Lauro Cavalcanti, Farès el-Dahdah, Francis Rambert, fotografie di Leonardo Finotti ACTAR , Cité de l’architecture & du patrimoine, Barcelona 2011 [pp. 350, € 39.00] by ACTAR


Gardens of Roberto Burle Marx (Malcom Raggett Photography)
Roberto Burle Marx (moma collection)
Roberto Burle Marx: The Marvellous Art of Landscape Design (by Styliane Philippou)
Roberto Burle Marx | Review (DOMUS)
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One Reply to “Roberto Burle Marx | book review”

  1. Very good review. I found the book a litle repetitive too, but great reading nonetheless. There are great records about Burle Marx’s persona, but none contemporary. Actually, there is this series of documentaries films being made here in Brazil about the carioca school of architecture. Niemeyer, Reidy and MMM Roberto are a must see. I’m hoping a Burle Marx documentary will be made.

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