Roberto Burle Marx was Brazil’s most famous landscape architect of the 20th Century. Inspired by the modern art movements of Cubism and abstract expressionism, he broke the tradition of designing classically hedged, European gardens and instead installed irregularly shaped bold spaces that used native South American plants. Throughout his long life he designed hundreds of private gardens and public parks while advocating for the conservation of Brazil’s rainforests. He was also a painter and tapestry maker. In whatever medium he worked, Roberto Burle Marx’s unique vision came through in all that he did.
Last fall, I visited a delightful tribute to Roberto Burle Marx at an exhibit at the Chicago Botanic Garden. There, both inside and out, the garden’s designers created spaces inspired by Burle Marx’s modernist vision. In the outdoor garden, plant columns and arches acted as focal points and portals inviting interest while transitioning from intimate spaces to more open expansive vistas. Waves of bright colors and huge-leaved perennials created cohesion. Bismarck Palms (Bismarckia nobilis), a palm I fell deeply in love with on a long ago trip to Hawaii, offered their own architectural statement with icy blue color and enormous fans. Perennial foliage of yellow, purple, and orange contrasted in loud riots throughout. Together, all of these elements created garden spaces that surprised and stunned. In short, a Burle Marx garden is a botanical feast for the eye.
Inside the Joutras Gallery, a modest but impressive collection of Burle Marx’s art was on display. His paintings and shag tapestries reminded me of Kandinsky and Klee though all of his creations were his own, maturely formed and sophisticated. Photos of his most famous project, the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, showed how he mirrored the waves of the ocean in the hardscapes, intertwining undulating patterns on the vast sidewalk with trees and shrubs. It’s an amazing promenade whose personality may be best appreciated from a bird’s eye view.
In addition and most surprisingly (and beloved by me) were Burle Marx’s landscape plans. At first I thought they were another group of modernist paintings with smaller abstract shapes and more intricate detailing but soon realized they were blueprints of gardens that were stand-alone works of art. With paint and ink added to their designs, they served as another means of Burle Marx’s artistic expression.
In “Praça dos Cristais,” the jagged blue shape represents the water that later formed the centerpiece of the park with its concrete sculptures jutting from the water. The black-and-white areas are hardscaping, the green polygons the treed areas, the tiny asterisks for shrubs. I found the intersection of saturated colors, fat lines, and delicate detailed shapes their own kind of masterpiece.
“Farzena Vagrem Grande” is a rectangular plan of a historic coffee plantation. Its colors jump out, each representing a different surface or garden space. These shapes have even more craftsmanship with drawn pebbles, repeating lines, and starry representations of trees. Each geometric area takes visitors in real time from modern square ponds to bean-shaped beds to angular walking paths. When viewed as a flat piece of art, the plan is quirky and fascinating. When viewed as an installed garden, the magic of Burle Marx’s vision between the 1837 mansion and its surrounding rolling countryside is deft and amazing.
Though most of the Brazilian plants in the Chicago Botanical Garden exhibition are only hardy to one or two US gardening zones, some can be grown seasonally in pots (like cannas) or indoors (like colocasias). Having grown both of these plus a few more, I can say their hot colors and large leaves are worth it. In my next post, I’ll spotlight some of these plants and talk about how to grow them.