Roberto Burle Marx single-handedly changed the face of tropical garden design while introducing to the world a host of amazing indigenous Brazilian plants hitherto ignored by Brazilians. In the process became an international figure. It’s intriguing to delve into his soul as an artist and plantsman to find out why his impact was so gargantuan.
Late in 2012, I visited several Burle Marx masterpieces, yes masterpieces, in Rio de Janeiro and also in the hills around Petropolis and Teresopolis. Each is different but with common characteristics; each brims with interesting plants and each has a magical quality. I’ll cover this in two parts for GardenDrum. The first part will cover his own garden the Sitio, a word that just equates to estate or ranch and in the second, gardens in the mountains beyond, to Petropolis and Teresopolis, where a garden tour is needed to visit.
Burl Marx was first an artist and secondly, a landscape designer. He brought unique talents to both, drawing on his own family background of German, French and Portuguese roots. No one operates in a vacuum and the artistic influences he gained, as a child and young man were crucial to his later flowering as a landscape revolutionary. The artist in him learned, but then turned from European ideas of symmetry and geometric balance he grew up with, opting for more abstract and cubist concepts. This liberated his creative mind to develop a more romantic Brazilian garden anthology. As far as plants were concerned, he told his biographers that he first saw the potential of Brazilian plants in the greenhouses of Berlin while studying abroad.
Modernism had taken hold of architecture, art had its Picasso, Dali and Modigliani but garden design was still hobbling along in the 19th Century. Burle Marx changed all that. With great swathes of tropical foliage colour and texture mixed with contemporary art and grand scale land shaping using geometric forms so familiar to us from 1950s textile design, he revolutionised garden design. Critics suggest there are four areas where his influence was greatest –use of indigenous tropical plants, forsaking of symmetry, emphasis on paths and paved open spaces and free form, organically shaped ponds and water landscapes.
These elements can look decidedly retro but retro is king right now, so it’s worth taking a look back at what made his gardens special and why they have remained pre-eminent. So ubiquitous did his style become, that by the 90s it seemed clichéd. While the copycat versions may look dated, his gardens still have a freshness and lyrical beauty.
Let’s go to the beach
In Rio, a good way to get a feel for the work of Burle Marx is simply to go to the beach or wander around the open spaces of the city. The famous pavement of Copacabana Beach was his work as was the enormous Flamengo Park built on reclaimed land. Private gardens are harder to visit but two that are reasonably accessible are the gardens of the Petrobras Building and the Santa Teresa Tram Terminal (now closed after an accident but you can peer through the fence. The Instituto Moreira Salles, a film and music museum in suburban Gavea is open to the public as is the maestro’s own garden, Sitio Burle Marx, two hours drive from central Rio.
Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, Barra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro
The Sitio is 45 km from Rio and run by an official institution with an officious approach to visitors. Book into an English-language tour but don’t expect a free run. An armed guard accompanies you for the entire time, timing is strictly controlled and no straying from the group is allowed – not your usual relaxing garden visit anywhere else in the world.
Burle Marx’s Sitio started life as an experimental garden and research centre for the newly collected plants he was acquiring. There are about 3500 different species here. One thing immediately noticeable is how he planted according to the various microclimates of the site – shade, moist sunny and so on while retaining the natural topography. The garden reflects a new more organic design direction derived from his appreciation of local flora and experimentation with abstract forms.
It is a large garden and you need time to explore it. From the entrance gate, you walk up a long drive to the office with its frames of bromeliads and avenue of leopard trees (Caesalpinea ferrea) and slopes of Agave attenuata and Aloe bainesii. This leads to the original house and chapel. Several triangle palms from Madagascar in the lawn (Neodyspsis decaryi) dominate the house garden while stately royal palms (Roystonea oleracea) face the chapel. Here too are large frangipanis and a massive woolly congea (Congea tomentosa) with its mass of greyish pink blooms. Also in front of the house is the iconic feature of the garden – the large granite pond and waterfall planted with various bromeliads, including Alcantarea imperialis, Portea petropolitana, Orthophytum burle-marxii and Aechmea blanchetiana. The wall was made from granite reclaimed from demolished old buildings.
Past a huge Dracaena reflexa ‘Song of India’ and through a tiled mosaic colonnade one comes to the rear of the house, a large entertaining terrace with a massive concrete pergola build to support a jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), one of the world’s most beautiful climbers with its jade green-turquoise flowers.
This opens to a collection of beautiful flowering trees including rosewood (Physocalymma scaberrima), several erythrinas, the Saraca asoca with flowers like an orange Ixora chinensis and Amherstia nobilis (which some say is the most beautiful tree in the world with its large racemes of red orchid-like flowers). Behind this is one of the more ethereal parts of the garden – a steep hillside planted with groundcovers and ferns and curtains of ficus roots.
Onwards, Burle Marx’s studio built from the demolished arched façade of a colonial Portuguese building. Around the back is a gem, two really, the blue and white forms of Petrea maynensis. This is not the more common form we grow, Petrea volubilis, but a loose shrubby form, which, I think, lends itself to many horticultural uses from pleaching to allée planting. A semi-official book on the plants of Burle Marx suggests this is still unknown to horticulture but the flowers are like fine porcelain especially the white form but in all respects identical to the sandpaper vine. If only I could find it here.
Through a series of tightly stepped slopes, the visitor comes to a position overlooking Burle Marx’s intriguing water ponds. Their weird shapes set amid large granite boulders mimic the larger inselbergs amongst which Rio is set. It’s possible to see Rio in miniature; granite mountains set astride a miniature Guanabara Bay. Well maybe.
These combinations seem ordinary to Australians in warm zones but even in the 50s Brazil, it was just not done. Now, surprisingly common, even unfashionable plants like clumps of golden candles (Pachystachys lutea), variegated spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), Liriope muscari and devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) are used extensively. Visit before you die.
From Australia, Warwick Forge is leading a tour that includes the gardens of Burle Marx from 12th Oct – 2 Nov 2013. For information and itineraries contact Warwick Forge firstname.lastname@example.org T: 03 9804 8915 Gardens and Cultural Tours if South America