The Brilliance of Burle Marx

Sandra Ross adores the tropical landscapes of Brazil, so to learn more she visited the father of Brazilian landscape architecture at his home, Sitio Roberto Burle Marx.

The home, studio and garden of Burle Marx is aptly called the Garden of Wonders, El Jardin des Maravillas. I’m visiting on a day trip from Rio de Janeiro. I was keen to visit and find out more about one of the most creative minds of the 20th century. Burle Marx was ahead of his time and innovative in using native Brazilian species in his creations. Today, his style is synonymous with Brazilian landscape architecture. Incredibly productive, he designed more than 2,000 gardens throughout his lifetime. You can find his work in 20 countries, including the United States, France, Germany, Argentina, Venezuela, and Peru. Here we visit his private garden.

Sito Burle Marx

Sitio Burle Marx

Burle Marx was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1909 and he first studied painting, catching the great wave of abstract expressionism that swept the art world in the early 20th century.

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While studying painting in Germany he developed an appreciation for the native Brazilian vegetation, which was prized by the Botanic Gardens in Berlin, but dismissed at home in Brazil as scrub or bush.

By the 1930s Burle Marx had swapped paint for plants, applying an abstractly artistic vision to landscape. Using Brazilian plants in a unique approach that combined his fine art training and his love of music and sculpture, Burle Marx started creating unique landscapes for private commissions. His work caught the eye of modernist architects le Corbusier and neighbour Oscar Niemeyer and with them he created some of his most influential works.

Burle Marx designed more than 1,500 gardens and parks and perhaps the most recognisable of all his landscapes is the promenade at Copacabana, Rio de Janiero’s famous beach. The promenade stretches for some five kilometres, as a winding ribbon of abstract stone mosaics. From the upper buildings that line Avenida Atlantica, Burle Marx appears to have painted a giant single canvas.

Copacabana beach paving

Copacabana beach paving designed by Burle Marx

A canvas made up of millions of mosaic tiles.

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An exhibition devoted to his work has been developed to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The curator of the exhibition, Lauro Cavalcanti, says, “Burle Marx created tropical landscaping as we know it today, but in doing so he also did something even greater. By organizing native plants in accordance with the aesthetic principles of the artistic vanguard, especially Cubism and abstractionism, he created a new and modern grammar for international landscape design.”

Burle Marx’s studio. Photo – Sandra Ross

So, you can imagine how I had been looking forward to seeing the home and garden of this amazing designer. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s an artistic canvas of great swathes of plants, with mountains, lakes and dwellings. All Burle Marx’ many talents are on display here: his sculptures, paintings, pottery and murals, as well as his plants.

This ’sitio’ of approximately 100 acres was bought initially to house his plant collection, and was later lovingly restored to be his home and a small 17th century chapel for worship. The house sits in a forest clearing, and careful attention is given to the balance of void and vegetation, which must be kept in equilibrium. This is a difficult task in a tropical climate where everything grows fast!

The house is surrounded by 800,000 square metres of gardens planted out with 3,500 plant species. Burle Marx was particularly fond of Brazilian orchids, palms, water lilies, heliconias, rhoeo and bromeliads. Landscape design, he once wrote, “was merely the method I found to organize and compose my drawing and painting, using less conventional materials.”

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There is a lovely cool outdoor room with a simple kitchen for entertaining; a precursor of our contemporary courtyards. A dramatic and colourful tiled mural dominates this space. Attached is a substantial pergola with the exotic jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys, hanging as a curtain of crazy jade-green claw-like flowers.

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The Pond Terrace below the house features a lush green lawn, a classic pool and palms and bromeliads. At one end a tall stone plinth is mounted with a bromeliad. At the other stands a carved timber ‘totem’ pole.

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Burle Marx’ layered planting style, with massed plantings of ‘always separated’ colours, gives the garden a timeless quality and a beautifully relaxed style. Huge clumps of orchids, bromeliads and staghorn ferns hang in the trees. It was quite an experience to be immersed in such a rich landscape.

My favourite part was the water garden at the foot of the steep slope up to the house. The backdrop to this dramatic yet serene garden is a gentle waterfall with huge boulders of dark stone carefully positioned to allow water to trickle down the slope and into the ponds. These are planted with a superb combination of textured plants including palms, mussaenda, rhoeo, alocasia, alcanteras, bamboo, gingers, hibiscus and bromeliads.

Burle Marx died in his beloved home in 1994. He had donated his property, in trust for posterity, to the Brazilian government in 1985.

 

The Burle Marx Palette of Plants

Desirable in every way, these plants can be grown in your garden too! Here’s how.

Bismark palm (Bismarckia nobilis): Rounded, silver-blue fronds are up to 3m wide, divided into stiff pleated segments; native to Madagascar. In its natural state it can reach 25m, but in cultivation grows to 12m. The stout trunk gets to 45cm diameter. Burle Marx used these palms as accents in the background of his lake garden where they catch the light.

Elephants ear (Alocasia): Burgundy, almost black, heart-shaped glossy leaves make this a highly desirable foliage plant. It loves a wet bog or pond location. Grow to 0.5m in individual clumps. They were used by Burle Marx to soften the edges of the pond garden.

Moses in a cradle (Rhoeo discolour): Bicoloured green leaves have a pink stripe and a deep purple reverse. Each plant grows in a rosette form. 20cms. Planted en masse, in a warm climate, it makes a fabulous carpet. Burle Marx used it extensively for its texture and colour.

Lobster claw (Heliconia): This exotic tropical plant from South America (Peru, Colombia and Ecuador) is grown for its spectacular flowers. Plants grow into large clumps of banana-like foliage to a height of 2m. It likes heat, bright shade and plenty of moisture in the air and the soil.

Alcantera (Alcantera imperialis): This giant Brazilian bromeliad has tough leathery leaves and a thick red flower spike carrying hundreds of lightly fragrant, white flowers. The rosette of green foliage reaches 1.5m tall and wide; the flower spike grows to 3m. Burle Marx used alcantera as an accent plant. Look out for the fabulous red form, Alcantera imperalis ‘Rubra’ and its relatives.

Moth orchid (Phaleonopsis): An epiphytic orchid with petals like butterfly wings, extensively hybridised. The flower grows on a slender stem, up to 20cms long from a rosette of broad foliage. An even temperature (no colder than 15 C and hotter than 25 C, good light, no direct sunlight and high humidity are essential. Use liquid fertiliser monthly and don’t over-water.

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Moth orchids. Photo – Robin Powell

 

5 Things You didn’t know about Roberto Burle Marx!

1: He was also a singer

His mother, Cecilia Burle, was a pianist who promoted local music events that allowed her son to be in contact with music from a very early age. He took singing lessons in Germany and considered studying music.

2: He had training in painting, not architecture

When Burle Marx was 19, he moved with his family to Germany (for eye treatment), where he took painting and singing lessons. One year later, back in Brazil, he began studying architecture, but then changed to painting — although he first considered studying music. He just could not make up his mind!

3: He was related to Karl Marx

For those of you wondering about his surname, yes, he was indeed related to German philosopher and politician Karl Marx, a cousin of Burle Marx’s grandfather. 

4: He discovered the beauty of tropical plants … in Germany!

His first meaningful contact with Brazilian flora was actually at the Botanical Garden of Dahlem in Berlin. For the period of time Burle Marx and his family lived in Germany (1928-1929), he used to visit the garden quite often and to observe the species carefully.

5: He also designed tapestry and jewellery

He was a keen drawer, painter, and sculptor, and also designed tapestry and jewellery.

6: He was a great cook

Burle Marx appreciated the art of good food, too. He was very concerned with its presentation and would never allow food to be served in ordinary, boring dishes — he would even paint his own tablecloths! Pasta with palmito, watermelon and coconut chutney, and chicken with star anise were among his favourite dishes.

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