Roberto Burle Marx: The Modernity of Landscape

Gean Moreno


Roberto Burle Marx: The Modernity of Landscape
ed. Lauro Cavalcanti, Farés El-Dahdah, Francis Rambert
350 p.

This happens in an imaginary Miami in which things don’t occur ten years after they should. It’s the very early 90s. Dust swirling from the wreckage of fallen walls and crumbling empires is in the air. We take the train to an almost derelict downtown. It’s where concert venues are popping up. (Suicidal Tendencies as an opening act for the overrated––and now forgotten? even with that new album?––Jane’s Addiction is surely the most memorable gig of the period.) The train leaves us on Biscayne Boulevard, which has amazing and out-of-place sidewalks. Instead of the gray generic ones that had been laid down everywhere else, these come in a multitude of colors––salmon, caramel, black, beige, orange. And instead of aping the neat geometry of modular concrete slabs, they are made of small pavers that combine to make an undulating and irregular graphic design that stretches some 14 or 15 blocks. As the sun sets, the sidewalks are flowing textiles, vibrantly structured ribbons––a series of recurring and sweeping forms and gestures that have been modulated in such a way as to seem at once coherent and unpredictable, biomorphic and quasi-cubist. It’s as if the ground one is walking on could just grow soft and rearrange itself at any moment. If these sidewalks seem so out-of-place, it’s not only because they are surrounded by drab buildings but because we’ve been taught that nauseating pastels are the proper tones for the city. Nauseating pastels and neon. Miami is Miami Vice.

As awkwardly as these sidewalks rhyme with the attitude of the anti-Miami Vice long-haired kids, in dingy black t-shirts, marching on them, the dissonance they generate in relation to the birthday cake aesthetics of the city fires up their allure. It takes a certain kind of commitment and stubbornness to wear black boots in a hot crowd of Don Johnson dress shoes sans socks, and this commitment and stubbornness is secretly echoed in the way these sidewalks so self-assuredly refused Art Deco and Coke Deco clichés. It’s not that the sidewalks and stoned kids in faded jeans come from the same place; it’s that they both recoil with equal horror from the city to which they have been sentenced.

Of course this didn’t happen––this secret and incredulous connection between grungy dissatisfaction and urban forms rendered anomalous by the lameness that assailed them from every side. And it wasn’t because such sidewalks weren’t already planned. By 1988, Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx has finished the drawings for them. But of course the project was caught up in the sludge-lined corridors of our planning and zoning bureaucracies, slowed by a ballast of surreal ordinances and city council incompetence. The first phase of the sidewalk was finally completed in 1997 and the last––with a chunk of the project completely scrapped, including a major plaza––in 2009.

One supposes that it was finally completed because now that international starchitects are plopping buildings all over the city, and these buildings force free-floating international languages to employ a series of forms (canopies, perforated envelopes) that respond to local climate and other needs, it has finally become obvious to everyone just how prescient Burle Marx’s sidewalks were in understanding the modulations that context-free languages must suffer through when they hit the tropics. It’s not a question of the right coating––not about this or that ornament or range of colors, not of identity styles like Art Deco or whatever––but about certain architectural gestures that optimize structures for the environments in which they will exist. For Burle Marx, the teeming explosion of tropical flora needed a geometry of delirious undulation, something that abstracts the rhythms and turbulences of sea currents and the waves of invasive plants at the expense of imposed hard edges, if the city was going to generate some consonance with its climate and its citizenry. He localized the dialectic between an indomitable vegetable world and our unflagging drive to produce artifice.

The Biscayne Boulevard sidewalks are represented in Roberto Burle Marx: The Modernity of Landscape with a single drawing. This is sad but probably not unfair, as Burle Marx produced much more important projects in his native Brazil and in Venezuela and elsewhere and, one imagines, worked on them in much better conditions and with more reasonable timetables. (The Miami project was completed 15 years after he died.) Maybe it’s just easy to project from this side of the world, but the aerial photographs of Avenida Atlantica and the Copacabana promenade in Rio reveal how much potential there is in a simple sidewalk to define and activate large swaths of urban space.

The book sets out on the right foot with an essay by Lucio Cavalcanti. He proposes that to really make sense of Burle Marx we have to place him squarely in the Brazilian culture in which he was raised. Cavalcanti is particularly keen on reminding us just how deeply colonial ideology had seeped into the national psyche over the centuries. Divisions had been naturalized to such a degree that they trickled all the way down to the way in which domestic spaces were structured. In affluent homes, like the one in which Burle Marx was raised, the garden between the sidewalk and the facade of the house was filled with “‘noble’ species, including roses, azaleas, cypress and pine, planted between carefully trimmed hedges that formed geometric designs in the manner of French topiary art. Planting local species in these gardens was unthinkable, even if plants brought from more temperate zones showed signs of suffering the effects of the hot, Brazilian climate. Shielded from the eyes of passers-by and formal visitors, backyards were home to fruit trees and native shrubbery.” (p. 32) Value was determined not in terms of the evolutionary development and resilience that local species exhibited, but extended to things that brought a little bit of the Metropolis––however fake the whole charade was––to the periphery. Overturning these prejudices opened for Burle Marx a universe of native plants and plant behaviors that allowed him to explode the convention founded on timid and derivative engagement with European landscape design.

In an episode that repeats in Latin American culture to the point of becoming paradigmatic or cliché, Burle Marx came to appreciate the native flora of Brazil when he encountered it––during a trip that has become legendary in his biography––at the Berlin-Dahlem botanical gardens in the early 1930s. This discovery of America in Europe, an event endlessly repeated since the 19th Century, didn’t happen in a void however. Back home, a little cultural revolution was on its way. Starting with the now-mythological event called the Modern Art Week of 1922, held in São Paulo, a group of young artists and writers decided to stake out a claim in the international avant-garde, but not by emulating it and producing second-rate versions of its products. Instead, they opted for cannibal logic: they would eat the avant-garde that came to them from Europe and regurgitate or metabolize an authentically Brazilian art. Deglutition over imitation. The most important document to come out of this period is Oswaldo de Andrade’s Anthropophagic Manifesto (1928), which proposes that the best way forward for artists lies in following the steps of the Indians who, in 1556, ate Bishop Sardhina. “Tupí or not Tupí––that is the question…”

It is against this background, and the emergence and growing prominence of a generation of Brazilian architects that includes Oscar Neimeyer and Lucio Costa, that Burle Marx’s embrace of tropical flora and first incursion into landscape design need be considered. Back from Europe in 1932, he set out on various trips to survey the interior of the country, and began to work on his first garden designs that incorporated and relied on local species. This is coupled with his fruitful translation of the geometric abstraction of early modernist painting to garden design and landscape architecture. He not only gave orthogonal painterly composition 3D form, but infected it with sinuous lines and curves. More importantly, however, he understood that this translation only went so far. Leaving the canvas, he now had to generate and intelligently guide an affective dimension that was produced by odors, colors, hues, textures, varying plant heights, shadows, microclimates, topographical givens, seasonal changes, morphological instability, open areas, sounds, non-vegetable elements (rocks, granite walls, planters), and clustered vegetation. Composition at the level of the landscape is not only a question of scale, but one of time, of the material being perpetually animated and changing.

Setting off with Cavalcanti’s essay, the book is on the right course. It is aided by Jacques Leenhardt’s concrete observations on the changing urban (from plantation to city) and sociopolitical domain, and the enlarging technological field (through campaigns to institute the telegraph nationally) in the first decades of the 20th Century in Brazil. With the context established, the task of the other essays is flexible. Some of the contributors zoom in on details of Burle Marx’s practice, others consider him within a larger constellation of ideas and touch more lightly on concrete examples. Starting with a recollection of his visit as a teenager to Burle Marx’s own garden/botanical lab/house/studio (known as Sítio Roberto Burle Marx) in Rio, Farés El-Dahdah, for instance, works through the ways in which time and instability draw a sharp line between landscape design and the stasis of the building. He leaves behind the need to be stingy with interpretation and unfolds his thoughts on Burle Marx into a broader meditation on the fundamentals of landscape architecture (and of newer efforts in building) as a practice beholden to the dynamics of constant mutation, going so far as to hazard the suggestion that psychedelia may need to be reconsidered in architectural thinking.

In a very different approach, André Correa Do Lago looks at three private gardens as objects that help explain a very particular dimension of Burle Marx’s practice––his negotiation with the architecture around his gardens and with the teeming natural spaces that were never far off. Dorthée Imbert does something similar with rooftop gardens. The rest of the essays in the book develop along a range these two approaches to the work––the close-up on a particular aspect of Burle Marx’s practice or the more philosophical effort that plays off a broad horizon of ideas.

The book is significant and generous. Aside from linking Burle Marx to modern heavyweights like Le Corbusier, it also slots him in the constellation of Latin American cultural luminaries. Borges is mentioned repeatedly. Helio Oiticica slips in. The book is filled with dozens of documentary photographs and drawings, and includes images of a few of Burle Marx’s paintings, gouaches, and murals, which marked the path he thought in his youth he would follow. Alongside commissioned essays, there are a handful of Burle Marx’s own writings, always interesting reads. In short, the book does justice to the work it celebrates and documents.

But even as it earns its place as a proper monograph to be consulted by the field of landscape design for years to come, the real question that is shaken from slumber may just be: What good is Burle Marx today, as more than a historical example? What living lesson does he have for us? In the end, I don’t think it has to do specifically with landscape design. It’s more general; it opens past the discipline’s borders. It has to do with the need to metabolize formal languages into responsive structures by linking them to the enzymes of climate and culture, of history and economics. And, of course, this is always a matter that needs to be considered in the present tense. It’s not about finding some old formula that worked seventy years ago, as European modernist languages where being dispersed globally. It’s about pressuring today’s most advanced processes––infrastructural research, network theory, post-parametric design, interactive urbanism, and the like––into mutant versions of themselves by having them respond to real-world constraints and opportunities, always and everywhere. Architectural production generated by algorithms and that sort of thing is always a nice formal exercise, great for the magazines, but it is only significant when the structures produced are modulated through engagement with the volatile and dynamic forces and intensities––historical, economic, geopolitical––that shape our moment and concretize its discrepancies. This, in the end, is what Burle Marx still teaches: that the world is varied and that our languages, perfectly sealed and shaped in theory, need to also be labile and open enough in practice to fruitfully engage the intensities they face out in the world if they are going to be of any service to the collective arrangements that we, hopeless romantics, still strive for.


Roberto Burle Marx: The Modernity of Landscape is available from Actar.

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