Paul UrquhartRoberto Burle Marx’s private Sitio

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.

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Palm dominated lawn at Roberto Burle Marx’s Sitio

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.

Sitio Burle Marx Photo Paul Urquhart2

Sitio Burle Marx

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.

Roberto Burle Marx, Instituto Moreiro Salles

Roberto Burle Marx, Instituto Moreiro Salles

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.

Sitio bust of Roberto Burle Marx

Sitio bust of Roberto Burle Marx

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.

Roberto Burle Max Sitio

Roberto Burle Marx Sitio

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.

The avenue of leopard trees

The avenue of leopard trees leading to Burle Marx’s Sitio

Roberto Burle Max Sitio

Grey Agave attenuata in Roberto Burle Marx’s Sitio

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.

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx lawn

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx lawn

Granite pond and surrounding bromeliads

Pond of reclaimed granite blocks, surrounded with bromeliads

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Floating palm islands at Burle Marx’s Sitio

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.

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Saraca asoca

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.

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Hand-painted tiles decorate the covered colonnade dining area

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Petrea maynensis

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.

Roberto Burle Max Sitio

Flowing curves of ponds and paths at Roberto Burle Marx’s Sitio

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.

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx Rio de Janeiro

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx Rio de Janeiro

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 T: 03 9804 8915 Gardens and Cultural Tours if South America

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Paul Urquhart

About Paul Urquhart

Author of several books including The New Native Garden and Small by Design; freelance garden and travel writer; in a past life was Editor of Your Garden and gardening editor of several Australian lifestyle magazines.

11 thoughts on “Roberto Burle Marx’s private Sitio

  1. Hello Paul

    Great to read your article on Sitio RBM and view those wonderful photos.

    They bring back memories of going to a party at Sitio in the late 80s and meeting the master himself. The verandah, house and terraces were full of people and there was a large buffet lunch in a covered area. An added bonus was meeting botanical artist and author Margaret Mee and her husband Greville.

    The gardens are amazing and I could have spent days in the shadehouses! I intend to go back again one day. It won’t be quite the same but I’m sure it will be enlightening once again. I concur, visit before you die.


  2. Fantastic article Paul and I thank you for it.

    Burle Marx seems to me to represent artifice at it’s absolute best. I love his work (from what I can glean from books and pics) and I fully intend to see some of his gardens someday too.

    Those floating islands are just brilliant!

    • It is a shame so few are readily accessible. Sao Paolo and Brasilia are high on my list of places to visit. And you are right about artifice. There is nothing naturalistic about BM’s work nor are his designs in any way formal. Somehow he managed to transcend all that conventional stuff and the results are fantastic.

  3. I’m drooling, Paul! Just stunning! I have many strengths in gardening but painting plant pictures is not one of them: I have to work very hard at it, and the results are… adequate. Maybe one day, those efects will seep into my brain, and I’ll become a plant artist, rather than scientist. Maybe.
    Thanks for posting, and look forward to Part 2!

  4. Thanks Paul,
    Sitio RBM, Tropical Mecca for anyone working with this enormous sub-tropical & tropical planting band width…. beautifully researched, every plant accurately identified and aptly related, description easy to read and informative as I would expect from the most successful editor of Your Garden magazine. Especially interesting is that Petrea maynensis …. I noticed that when were there in ’06 behind the RBM Studio. Thanks for identifying both the blue & white forms as another species from the more familiar P. volubilis, that I had presumed it was at the time… always something new in garden making ….no?

    Lucky you being there in the late 80’s Arno, meeting the Master AND Tropical Horticultural royalty Margaret Mee & husband Greville… swoon

    • Yes, indeedy Robin. Loving it desperately. I can’t get over the porcelain texture of the flowers, they are so unreal.

  5. Marvellous Paul thank you/ muchas gracias Senor! Great to have your response to this man’s work and considerable legacy. If only I could afford that tour! Aye aye! Stuart Read.

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