Marx, the revolutionary Brazilian

Brazilian landscape designer (and artist, musician, multilinguist, chef, etc.) Roberto Burle Marx, died in 1994. By then he had created hundreds of gardens throughout South America. Gardens that rebelled, gently, against the formalities of European landscapes and incorporating for the first time plants from the local tropical flora.

His estate (sitio) garden was described while he was alive as 'like a botanical garden', with extensive collections of tropical plants such as Philodendron and Helicornia, some of them bearing the species name burle-marxii. Some of these were grown in extensive shade houses.

Marx famously discovered tropical plants himself in the glasshouses of the Berlin-Dahlem Botanic Garden, while in Germany in 1928 studying art. Back in Brazil a few years later he crammed his sitio near Rio de Janeiro with local orchids, bromeliads and other indigenous species.

From there his influence and inspiration extended to other private and public gardens of the city, including Flamengo Park and Copacabana. He was inspired by artists such as Van Gogh, and later cubists, but also by tropical plants and forests.

His 142 ha sitio lies about an hour south of Rio. Around 37 ha of the garden is maintained now by the State of Rio de Janeiro and is open to the public, but only by invitation or as part of a tour group. (I gather at the moment it is closed to nearly all visitors, but with the kind assistance from Ronaldo Camargo Veirano, Honorary Consul for Australia in Brazil, I was able to visit during my recent trip to South America.)

After a brief meeting with the Director, Claudia Maria Pinheiro Storino, Lynda and I were taken for a tour by early-career botanist and part-time tour leader, Igor Azevedo, shadowed at all times by an armed guard. We are told that 30 horticulturists care for the 3,500 plant species, and various tropical landscapes. Some of them worked with Marx, carrying a special insignia on their shirts to signify this link.

There are fascinating trees such as the Rainbow Gum (Eucalyptus deglupta, from the Philippines and a species we are about to trial at the edge of the Fern Gully here in RBG Melbourne), old frangipanis and an avenue of local Leopard Trees (Caesalpinia ferrea). There are also lots of colourful bromeliads, again some named in honour of Marx (he wasn’t a botanist but introduced many plants into cultivation), ferns and begonias.

But the landscapes are what really impress, with curved garden beds and adapting to the contours and setting, all mildly revolutionary in Marx’s time (the middle twentieth century). Paul Urquart provides an expert and upbeat review of the garden on GardenDrum (although elsewhere, on a site I can no longer find, Paul is more frank about their lack of enthusiasm towards the visitor), making the point that his main innovations were the use of local (Brazilian) plants, avoiding symmetry, and emphasizing paths and open spaces.

A lingering memory for me is the series of stunning pools and garden landscapes around them. All up it was a thoughtful, fascinating and inspiring garden to visit. 

There is a fascinating debate taking place at the Garden, so I was told, about whether to keep the garden as Marx created it, simply nipping and tucking to keep it true to the original design, or... to invite similarly minded (or indeed differently minded but equally innovative) designers to continue the same approach to gardening (a la Tim Richardson's recent editorial in Australian Garden History Society newsletter). I'm inclined towards the latter approach, albeit with Roberto Burle Marx and his initial creation as the reference point.

Note: And an earlier reference to Burle Marx, overlooked when writing this, in a post from 2012, while living in London.


Thanks for your enjoyable reflections Tim!

It did amuse us also when we took an ALC gardens tour to the Sitio a couple of years ago - visitors are seen as the enemy… If only the staff/authorities realised how Roberto Burle Marx is revered worldwide and those visiting are genuine devotees.

In regards to the future of the property - it's important to keep at least some of his original work otherwise his legacy loses significance - especially when his influence on contemporary landscape design is so profound.

In the art world, Picasso, Matisse, Warhol (amongst many others) emerged as leaders introducing new styles, techniques - and narrative. Today when similar work is so mainstream it's too easy to forget the trailblazers.
Talking Plants said…
Thanks Kim. Yes I gather they have an odd approach to visitors generally. I have to say we were warmly welcomed, albeit in a controlled way.

In regard to future planning, I suspect it will be 90% his design and legacy but they need to have the confidence to add a bit here and there with the same sense of adventure and creativity. Not just treat it as polishing and cleaning a monument, which for a garden I don't think is possible or desirable in the long run. But, a topic to debate! No simple answer. Tim