A Different Kind of Modernism:
The Humanistic Vision of Roberto Burle Marx

An artist, landscape architect, collector, and designer, Roberto Burle Marx was the founder of a tropical modernism. While he is revered far and wide in his home country Brazil, his manifold work has yet to be discovered in Europe. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on Burle Marx’s spiritual and social vision.
In 1962, just a few years before his death, Le Corbusier visited Brazil for the last time. The granddaddy of international modernist architecture was a living legend there, too. He couldn’t meet all his social commitments. One of the few invitations Le Corbusier accepted was to a lunch in his honor at Sítio Santo Antonio da Bica, the estate of Roberto Burle Marx. The 365,000 square meter property, a former coffee plantation on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, was the private paradise of the Brazilian landscape architect and artist. In greenhouses, gardens, and swamps that ran through hilly landscape between ponds and waterfalls, he planted one of the world’s largest collections of tropical plants. He protected and cultivated more than 3,500 rare species in his refuge. In the course of his life, he went on long expeditions throughout South America to find them.

The building ensemble of the Sitio, to which a seventeenth-century chapel belongs, is part of a Gesamtkunstwerk that combines the preservation of Brazilian nature and tradition, the boldness of modernism, and an incredible joie de vivre. The residence and the studio not only contain Burle Marx’s own abstract paintings, sculptures, ceramics, tiles, and ceiling paintings. The rooms are brimming with his collection of glass paintings as well as folk, sacral, and pre-Columbian art that he arranged with precision on modernist tables and old wooden furniture. Burle Marx not only collected fine and decorative art, but also fragments of old residential and factory buildings that he inserted in walls or on the grounds of his estate. The man of the house’s legendary menus were just as subtle and opulent as his eclectic home. The gifted chef served them on long tables with tablecloths he painted himself for each occasion and coordinated décor of flowers and fruit from his garden. He was also an enthusiastic singer, inheriting a love of opera, and particularly of German music, from his parents. Burle Marx came from an art-minded upper-class family. His mother was a talented singer and his father a Jewish-German merchant, who emigrated to Brazil in 1889

Burle Marx’s estate was stunningly beautiful, but completely devoid of conceit. His house was a meeting place for old friends, neighbors, artists, and politicians. He not only hosted leading proponents of South American modernism, but also Europeans. And now Le Corbusier as well. On a photo taken during their afternoon get-together we see the two modernists chatting casually, two men who could not be more different. Le Corbusier, wearing a bowtie and cardigan, is standing up perfectly straight despite his advanced age: a teacher, the picture of rigor. And Burle Marx, then fifty-two, the bon vivant with flowing gray hair in a lose shirt, is standing in front of him listening calmly, virtually baroque in his fullness and physical presence. A certain tension is palpable. In a typically male gesture, they both have their hands in their trouser pockets. However, Burle Marx demonstratively flashes a big golden ring. We sense that two alpha animals are talking.

Indeed, Burle Marx was scarcely a disciple of Le Corbusier. Along with Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, he was already part of the Holy Trinity of Brazilian modernism. He had revolutionized urban planning since the 1930s and cultivated a kind of landscape architecture that entered into a bold synthesis with the progressive concrete buildings of Niemeyer and Costa. Like their high-rises and ministries, Burle Marx’s gardens, squares, and parks are landmarks that are part of the identity of modern Brazil. In Brasília, the new capital, which sprung up in just four years according to Niemeyer’s and Costa’s plans and was inaugurated in 1960, he executed countless commissioned works—for example, the gardens of the seat of the president, the spectacular rooftop gardens of the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Justice, and the giant square in front of the Ministry of Defense.

He had known Le Corbusier since the 1930s, when Costa and Niemeyer asked the architect to advise them on the planning of the Ministry of Education and Health building in the then capital Rio de Janeiro. The linear high-rise is a daring project, arguably South America’s first modern building. Corbusier’s influence is unmistakable. This is evidenced by the supporting pillars, which make the building seem to float, and the roof garden. But it is a unique modernist edifice for another reason. It mingles European purism with strong Brazilian influences. Thus, for example, inside there are gigantic murals by Cândido Portinari, the country’s most famous painter, who also designed the exterior floor tiles. Burle Marx assisted him in this work. Portinari employed typically blue-painted azulejos from Portugal that were introduced in the colonial period. But he designed a modernist-abstract version of these traditional tiles, in keeping with the Manifesto Antropófago published by the poet Oswald de Andrade in 1928, in which Andrade called upon young artists to “cannibalize” European culture, but also to defy it. Burle Marx would go on to work with versions of azulejo tiles for decades, using them in walls, house walls, and halls.

After assisting Portinari, in 1938 he was finally invited by his early mentor Lucio Costa to design the garden on the giant canopy of the Ministry of Health. Like his contemporaries, he was an intellectual and artistic “cannibal.” The design he executed as a watercolor recalls an abstract painting. It is a micro- and macrocosm at once. Meanders run through the camouflage picture like river courses; forms look like amoeba, cell structures, or islands. In the garden design, he transferred the flatness of the image to three dimensions, and his procedure was revolutionary in several respects. While conventional Brazilian landscape architecture was still oriented to European Belle Époque garden design, with flowers and bushes imported from overseas, Burle Marx worked exclusively with domestic flora. He virtually “painted” his gardens with plants. They give his compositions volume and structure. He did not rely on tropical blooms, but primarily on the leaves. Rather than planting flowerbeds picturesquely, he opted very clearly for color, mass and surface, and for strong contrasts. Indeed, surfaces of Burle Marx’s roof garden are not monochrome, but are composed of countless shades of green. The ministry’s staff members look out of the windows at an abstract landscape, a mixture of art and nature, reminiscent of an aerial photograph of a tropical forest.

That this was a major break with purist modernism is reflected in Le Corbusier’s Precisions, a series of notes he made in 1929 during his first lecture tour of Brazil. In it, he describes a flight over the Amazon. With horror and fascination he viewed the untamed rainforest, which reminded him of the “horrible mold” in his mother’s jam jars. The rainforest is the mold of the earth, he wrote. As it has been for generations of European explorers, the tropical rainforest was both a mystery and threat for him—“still, motionless, dense, impenetrable, perhaps hostile.”

The colonialist idea of subjugating the wild tropics transforms into the opposite in Burle Marx’s landscape designs. In his gardens, it is a matter of cultivating a tropical civilization. Astonishingly, this idea did not have its roots in Rio de Janeiro, but 10,000 kilometers away, in Berlin. Or to be more precise, in the Botanical Gardens of the German capital. In 1929, the same year in which Corbusier was flying over the Amazon, the young Burle Marx visited Berlin’s galleries and museums, where he was enthralled by Picasso and the Expressionists. He had a cathartic experience in the Alte Nationalgalerie, where an exhibition ignited his lifelong love of Vincent van Gogh’s electrifying landscape paintings. In the greenhouses of the Botanical Gardens in Dahlem, he recognized the beauty of Brazilian flora, the philodendrons, bromeliads, water lilies, and snakewood plant that were ignored in Brazilian gardens but lovingly cultivated here. Back in Rio, he began planting his own gardens and studying art and architecture.

The exhibition Roberto Burle Marx. Brazilian Modernist, which is now being shown at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle after the premiere in the Jewish Museum, New York, closes a circle. The show not only documents the private and public gardens, parks and squares, that Burle Marx planned and realized around the world. It explores a life in which everything strives for holism, in which one thing leads to another. Painting becomes landscape architecture; a sketch of a garden becomes a piece of jewelry or a sculpture. The show also honors Burle Marx as a pioneer of environmental and nature protection. He not only championed the preservation of endangered species, but also the reconciliation of civilization and nature—an idea that informs his entire oeuvre.  The notion of a Garden of Eden in which everything can grow and flourish is combined with a vision of humanism and democracy.

This is apparent from two of his most famous projects in Rio. While in 1929 Le Corbusier was planning 100 meter high-rises for cities plagued by overpopulation and traffic whose roofs highways would run, in the 1960s and 70s Burle Marx created a different, much more sensitive and social form of urban relief. For the over four kilometer long boulevard Avenida Atlântica that lines Copacabana beach, he picked up on the traditional, wave-shaped paving that is popular in Portugal and Brazil. On the promenade, he enlarged the wave shapes in order to create a formal transition between sea and city. For the floor mosaics on the median and on the walkway, he designed audacious abstract compositions, “wild” mosaic carpets repeatedly interrupted by segments of the black-and-white wave pattern. The steady stream of passersby and vehicles, and the waves of the sea, add additional dynamism to the gigantic composition.

The avenue leads to Parque do Flamengo, a giant area also designed by Burle Marx that runs along the dramatic urban coastline. Twelve thousand trees alone were planted there. The park unites nature, culture, and sports: beaches, green areas, meadows, soccer fields, tennis courts, and museums. This symbiosis is in keeping with his utopian vision that links modern people with both primordial nature and progress. Burle Marx’s idea of modernism is social and spiritual. For him, there are no hierarchies between ornamental plants and weeds, high and folk art, poor and rich. He is undogmatic and far from subordinating reality to a bold vision. 

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist
7/7/2017 – 10/3/2017 .
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin