I first discovered Roberto Burle Marx on a quest to learn about the decorative mosaics that line Copacabana’s promenade in Rio de Janiero. What a superstar I found! He’s not only responsible for those gorgeous calcada portuguesa. but over two-thousand garden designs across twenty countries. Not to mention the inspired jewellery collections, theatre sets and costumes, art and tapestries he designed or created over the course of his 84 years. Roberto Burle Marx’s achievements are almost impossible to sum up in a single blog post, but I’ll try.
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Roberto Burle Marx was one of four boys born to a French-Brazilian mother and German Jewish father in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The family relocated to Rio de Janiero and by age nine, Burle Marx had befriended an influential neighbour – Lucio Costa, an urban planner best known for developing the master plan for Brazil’s capital Brasilia alongside renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer. Costa encouraged Burle Marx, now in his late teens, to apply for the National School of Fine Arts, where Roberto enrolled to learn architecture.
The life changing journey
At age 19 Burle Marx needed eye surgery, so the entire family relocated to Berlin, Germany for a year. During his time in Europe, Burle Marx had two major revelations that would impact his life’s path. Firstly, Burle Marx regularly visited the Botanical Garden of Dahlem. It was there in a humid conservatory that Roberto had an aha-moment! He suddenly saw Brazil’s native flora in an inspirational new light. In his homeland the tropical foliage and flowers were considered passé. They were glossed over in favour of imported temperate species arranged in formal European style gardens. However, in this new setting Burle Marx began to recognize their exotic natural beauty.
Roberto was also immersed in the art and culture of Berlin including theatre, concerts, galleries and opera. He took singing and painting lessons. His second revelation came upon seeing a major exhibition of Van Gogh’s work, which immediately affected his decision to pursue painting over architecture. On return to Brazil, Roberto continued his studies at the National School of Fine Arts, but as a visual arts student.
‘Those paintings – that violent expression – invaded my whole being! I realised painting would have to be my medium.’
– Roberto Burle Marx recalling the Van Gogh exhibit
No matter what incarnation of art and design Roberto expanded into throughout his career, he first saw himself as a painter. His style was modern, abstract, organically geometric and vibrantly coloured. His landscape design plans look as much like art, as his paintings. He was influenced by the modernist movement, particularly Cubism, Dadaism and Abstractionism, alongside Brazilian folk art.
Burle Marx’s favourite projects were large-scale, public assignments that could be enjoyed by the masses, not only the wealthy elite who would commission him for private works. Perhaps this why landscape design was where he found the perfect medium.
“He used to say the larger and more open a project, the more he liked it, because it could be enjoyed by all social strata.”
– Haruyoshi Ono on Roberto Burle Marx
Landscape designer and horticulturist
In 1932 Roberto got his first landscape design gig for a private home, care of his friend Lucio Costa. The two would partner many times of the years and Costa would introduce Burle Marx to renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer, who would also partner with Burle Marx for projects. It is no wonder architects and urban planners loved Roberto, his attitude was that landscaping is an extension of architecture and not simply a decoration. Burle Marx also believed that gardens should fall in with their natural environment and dedicatedly studied the native Brazilian flora he used so prevalently. He took excursions into the Amazon jungle alongside botanists, researchers and landscape architects, to improve his horticultural knowledge. In fact, Burle Marx has over 50 plant species named after him and at one time was considered one of the world’s leading bromeliad experts. Roberto is revered as a pioneer of modern garden design, in particular modern, tropical garden design.
“[Landscape design is] merely the method I found to organize and compose my drawing and painting, using less conventional materials.”
– Roberto Burle Marx
Through his study of horticulture, Amazonian excursions, and time spent creating outdoor experiences for people in urban landscapes, Burle Marx recognized the detriment and danger of rapid deforestation in the Amazon. He spoke outwardly about the need for conservation of Brazil’s native forests and destruction of the natural environment around the world.
“I’m deeply concerned about what is happening to the world’s natural resources and, in particular, to the Amazon region. It is a crime that 30% of the virgin forests are dying. Brazilians are largely responsible, but foreigners are also ruthlessly exploiting the region.”
– Roberto Burle Marx 1989
Not only did Roberto apply his creativity and artistic skills to painting and landscapes, but dabbled in many areas of design. For a while he partnered with his brother Haroldo, a talented jeweller, showcasing Brazil’s gemstones in modernist pieces for which they developed a unique free form gem cutting method. Though the brothers unfortunately fell-out and parted ways, Roberto went on to design more jewellery.
Burle Marx was a talented cook, and loved to host dinner parties. He continued to sing and is recalled to have been quite the amateur baritone. He created tapestries and designed the occasional stage set and even costumes for theatre productions. Roberto worked right up to his death, with one of his final commissions, the Biscayne Boulevard gentrification project in Miami, being completed posthumously.
Experiencing Burle Marx
Brazilian polymath Roberto Burle Marx took art to the garden and back again, with a few detours into other design forms. Roberto left behind an estate with his nursery and plant collection that is now a national monument, public space and pending UNESCO World Heritage Site in Brasil. Here are a few more places you might experience Burle Marx’s work:
- Copacabana and Ipanema beach promenades, Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro (state), Brasil
- Ibirapuera Park, Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo (state), Brasil
- Pampulha Modern Ensemble (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais (state), Brazil
- Instituto Moreira Salles, Gavea, Rio de Janeiro (state) Brasil
- Cascade Garden, Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania, USA
- Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Florida, US
- Kuala Lumpur City Centre Park, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Plan a trip to Brasil
If you don’t take a moment to admire the work of Roberto Burle Marx, you’ll be missing out!
Peace, love & inspiring travel,
Cover image – portrait of Roberto Burle Marx © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro