Design, Travel

Roberto Burle Marx: the great Brazilian garden modernist

[Ian Macready]
The designs for the Copacabana Beach Promenade

Ouch, we ‘ve just missed the twentieth anniversary of his death (June 4th 1994), but as it’s Brazil fever at the moment, it’s still a good time to dig through our old snaps from the pre-digital age (sorry about the poor quality!) from a trip to Brazil over a decade ago and reminisce about the beautiful Sitio (place) Burle Marx, the home in Guaratiba where he spent the last twenty years of his life, an hour’s drive west of Rio de Janeiro. He acquired the 100 acre banana plantation with his brother in 1949, donated the site in 1985 to the Brazilian Government and today it is a monument to his life’s work cared for by a team of 18 gardeners, and a studio containing his artwork.

Born of French Brazilian and German Jewish parents, he first started to take an interest in the plants of his native Brazil while studying art in Berlin in the 1920s, but spending his spare time in the Botanical Gardens of the city. Back in Rio in 1930 he came into contact with the architect and urban planner Lucio Costa, who later went on to draw up the plan for the new capital Brasilia and he was employed as his first job to design the garden for a private house project being designed by Costa and Gregori Warchavchik. And this was the start of a long association with Costa, architecture,  and the modernisation of Brazil. Burle Marx’s talent was to take his avant-garde painting style and develop this into a whole new way of thinking about landscape design. Added to this was his determination to create a tropical Brazilian aesthetic using his favourite orchids, palms, water lilies, and bromeliads. At that time in the 1930s, public gardens in Brazil were generally poor imitations of formal European parks. Burle Marx combined indigenous vegetation, abstract asymmetrical designs, colourful pavements and free form water features. His most prominent project is the refurbishment of the Copacabana Beach Promenade between 1968 and 1970- the four kilometre stretch of the most famous sea front in the world that is characterised by a wave pattern (accentuated in Burle Marx’s renovation) of small black and white artisanal Portuguese tiles to which Burle Marx added his flowing abstract design and the colour of red along the central reservation, with coconut palm palm trees and sea breeze resistant shrubs irregularly planted to provide shade for the bench seats. It’s best viewed from one of the higher floors of a hotel room to get the full view of the design.

Burle Marx worked extensively in the new capital Brasilia, in Venezuela and the USA, but carried out his final project on the other side of the world in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with the creation of a 50 acre park right in the centre of the city now overlooked by the Petronas Towers. He was a painter,  textile designer, jewellery maker, pioneering conservationist, has some 50 plants named after him  and apparently was pretty handy in the kitchen, serving memorable dinners for the great and good of Rio in the dining room of his Guaratiba house. Today the house and gardens with its 3500 different species of plants is open to visitors on pre-booked daily guided tours, unless of course you’re rich enough to hire the place for your wedding – there is conveniently a small chapel on site.

Of course while we’re on about Brazil, we’ve got to throw in a few snaps just for the hell of it, of work by Niemeyer, with whom Burle Marx worked on projects on many occasions.

Some waterlilies in the water feature
Planting in the gardens
Are they orchids?
A wall created from granite columns, blocks and friezes which were salvaged from the many historical buildings torn down in Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s
The verandah at the main house
The top lit dining room with his paintings and pieces of folk art in the house at Guaratiba
Some folk art in the house
The amazing Copacabana Promenade
The wave pattern of black and white tiles
Kuala Lumpur City Centre Park
A very early Niemeyer project from 1938 in Ouro Preto
The car park of the Grande Hotel de Ouro Preto.
The entrance to the Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum
The view from the beach
The Museum and the Sugar Loaf Mountain in the distance