What can we learn from Burle Marx?

Roberto Burle Marx was one of the fathers of Brazilian Modernism. What Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa were for architecture, Burle Marx was for landscaping. His gardens were like abstract paintings, and his use of indigenous plants and his environmental activism were nothing short of revolutionary. But how can Burle Marx’s thinking help us to design the urban habitats of today?

Studio Burle Marx: Julio Ono, Haruyoshi Ono, Isabela Ono, Gustavo Leivas
Landscape architects, Rio de Janeiro
Photo: Courtesy Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro

Isabela Ono

Roberto Burle Marx was a visionary and his thoughts ahead of his time. Starting in the 1930s, he advocated and employed innovative concepts that are still being updated by professionals working with urban and landscape planning today, taking into account ecology, sustainability, and discourses on local vs. global culture. At the same time, he created a unique language of tropical and modern landscaping.
Roberto did not believe in ready-made formulas, and throughout his life he sought out new experiences, while always respecting man and nature. Roberto and his long-term partner Haruyoshi Ono taught us to combine art with environmental and cultural issues, turning each landscape design into an art form that could be enjoyed by all citizens. Today we see in the big cities a growing need for green spaces and contact with nature. I believe that the work of Roberto gives us tools to face the current challenges. As Roberto once said: “Our actions are modified by our knowledge and are at the same time shaped by the world around us. Sciences, biological sciences, humanities, and artistic knowledge all go into what a comprehensive understanding can create in landscape architecture.”

Piet Oudolf
Garden designer, Hummelo
Photo: Courtesy of Piet Oudolf

Piet Oudolf

Roberto Burle Marx was a multidisciplinary artist—much more than just a painter or sculptor. What attracted me above all was that in the world of gardens he was an individualist, a modernist.
As a landscape architect, he literally expressed his emotions through plants. Strong lines in the most creative winding patterns and the use of plants in massive blocks—that was innovation. Looking at his design with plants, most of the plantings are done in huge blocks, highly attractive and clear.
This is the opposite of the more naturalistic way my work is seen. The connection I have felt with him through all the years is the way he sees himself as an artist. If you would like to compare my work with that of Burle Marx, you could say that they both involve more than a strong passion for plants.

atelier le balto: Marc Vatinel, Véronique Faucheur, Marc Pouzol
Landscape architects, Berlin
Photo: Yann Monel

atelier le balto

Although the projects of the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx are inspiring and instructive, they offer no patent recipes that can be used freely. Probably his most well-known project is the four-kilometer-long Calçadão de Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. This is due among other things to the incredibly powerful, graphic effect of the aerial images. The easiest way would be to try to copy this. But anyone who has a closer look at his career will be impressed above all by how gently he fought to raise awareness of the wealth and variety of domestic Brazilian tropical plants. His career was aesthetic and artistic, on the one hand, and educational on the other. He was very generous to humanity.
In the 1990s, Burle Marx attended what was then the only university for landscape architecture in France. When he visited the studio, he didn’t say much. But he looked at the plans and suddenly said: “Think of the plants. Get to know the plants.” That sums up his life and work, and what we can learn from them. One must only study his work thoroughly enough.
When we look more closely at his designs, we begin to understand how important the respective microclimate, topography, soil properties, and orientation of the property are in order to develop a meaningful project. As a painter and landscape architect, Burle Marx was extremely ingenious in the way the presented and staged the plants with their characteristics and used them for the overall picture. Burle Marx did not think ecologically the way architects do today in the context of the new growing megacities, which has given rise to a new architectural style, Green Architecture. Burle Marx cultivated and implemented his ecological thought in a very subtle way and it was always strongly entwined with his artistic thinking. He showed that with such ecological ideas and a profound knowledge of plants, an endless number of artistic forms can be developed. In this sense, the works of Roberto Burle Marx are still an impressive lesson in landscape architecture for us all.

Raymond Jungles
Landscape architect, Miami
Photo: Alexia Fodere

Raymond Jungles

Burle Marx’s ecological and artistic thought has had an impact on many architects, urban designers, and landscape architects practicing today. His creativity is the main thing he’s known for in his public projects, which are doing beautifully in Rio today from my viewpoint. The trees are large and giving great shade, and the sites have created wonderful public spaces. He used a lot of native Brazilian trees even though they weren’t even in the industry at the time. Any landscape that is not maintained properly can potentially fail, but most of Burle Marx’s gardens that I’ve seen are at the very least a beautiful ruin that people still get a lot of use out of.

Jens Hoffmann
Director of special exhibitions and public programs, The Jewish
Museum, New York, Co-Curator of the exhibition “Roberto Burle Marx:
Brazilian Modernist”
Photo: Robert Adler

Jens Hoffmann

While Burle Marx was in his heart a romantic, he was also decidedly political. By introducing native plants into the design of gardens in his home country, he helped to emancipate Brazil from the colonial garden concepts of Europe and thus contributed to general intellectual independence from the Old World.
His activism against the deforestation of the Amazon and the displacement of its native populations was another example of his direct engagement with the politics of Brazil.
Yet, his most important legacy is his encouragement to focus not on permanence or the assumed continual existence of objects and goods. His world was one of slow processes, sensitive actions, and the organic and uncertain development of nature.