By Carol Buckley.
The story of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx pivots on a paradox of colonialism. Born in 1909 in São Paulo, and reared primarily in Rio de Janeiro, Brule Marx grew up to be called by the father of Modernist landscape architecture in Brazil, where he is also considered a national hero. But it was in Berlin’s Dahlem Botanical Garden in 1928 that Brule Marx first discovered the tropical plants of his native land. The young painter had grown up in a Brazil where European aesthetics of the 18th and 19th centuries were still embraced by the upper classes, whose symmetrical gardens displayed flora from the Old World. It was a trend that Burle Marx, who had come under the influence of Cubism, Futurism, and the Bauhaus in the Weimar Republic while sojourning there with his family (his father was a German émigré), would change once he got back to Rio in 1930.
Experimenting with plants from the rain forest near Recife, hometown of his French-Brazilian mother, Cecília, he created a garden at the family home near Sugarloaf Mountain that attracted the interest of Professor Lúcio Costa, head of the National School of Fine Arts, where Burle Marx studied, and future leading architect of midcentury Brazil. Costa hired Burle Marx to design the garden at a private residence he had designed. From there, Burle Marx went on to design publicly and made his international mark with his rooftop garden atop the Ministry of Education and Health Building in 1937. When the capital moved from Rio to Brasília, Burle Marx was in charge of the urban landscape, but his most recognizable project is perhaps the hardscape alongside Avenida Atlantica at Copacabana Beach, a two-and-a-half-mile-long undulating mosaic path.
Burle Marx said, “Unlike any other art form, a garden is designed for the future, and for future generations.” One of the first to denounce deforestation, his cultivation of native species in bold and creative natural gardens is his greatest legacy. Gathering groups of botanists, architects, geographers, and horticulturists to explore the Amazon rain forest, he learned how to identify and package specimens in situ. In 1949, he bought an old banana plantation, the Sítio Santo Antônio da Bica, on the outskirts of Rio. There he cultivated approximately 3500 species of Brazilian plants, fifty of which he is credited with discovering. He established a nursery, including bromeliads and his beloved philodendrons, to supply his projects.
Burle Marx loved to entertain at his estate, providing excellent food amidst floral arrangements he designed and singing in his rich baritone for his guests. He combined the brutalism of reinforced concrete with Amazonian stones and bits of colonial architecture draping them in monumental and sculptural plants among water features.
Passionate about his gardens and artwork—paintings, textiles, ceramics, sculpture, and jewelry—he worked until his death in 1994. He gave his farm, now a national monument known as Sítio Burle Marx, to the government in 1985.