Burle Marx: the man who invented the Brazilian garden

by Lisa Ponti

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Photo by Luiz Correia de Araújo, archive Luiz Correia de Araújo

[…] In Brazil only wilderness or the European garden existed when, in the early Fifties, young Burle Marx invented the Brazilian garden – with the extraordinary Brazilian flora and that “interpenetration of curved forms” which was peculiar to Brazilians architecture (think of young Oscar Niemeyer) and also to Burle Marx’s painting. But in Rome, in 1990, old Burle Marx didn’t want to speak of “form” when talking of gardens. He longed to speak of meanings, to speak of the imponderable interaction of water, animals, plants and wind in a garden. Of the mixed cycles of growth, of the presence of man. “Paradise was a garden” Eden was a garden. The garden came “before architecture” in the history of man. It was man’s first home, an unbuilt home. And architecture never reached the conditions of Paradise. The garden is a metaphor to Burle Marx: it is “art” working in/out nature, where formalism doesn’t exist. (“I am afraid of formalisms. I hate the formula. I “adore the principle”). Nature avoids formalism through adaptation – and what captures Burle Marx is the never ending story of adjustments in nature, the imperceptible ones, and the absence of scale limits in nature, and the presence of the counterfeit (“Think of the innocent animals that look venomous…”). That’s the reason why Burle Marx was not interested, as he said, in the contemporary instant hybrids. He was still investigating the millenary ones of the Brazilian flora. (He has first become acquainted with Brazilian flora in Europe, in the German Botanische Gärten he visited in 1928). When I met him in 1990, he had just presented the Brazilian State with his own collection of “more than three thousand five hundred different Brazilian plants”, some bearing his name. This too is a metaphor: at 81, Burle Marx wanted to “dedicate” his work, his lifelong work. In the same spirit he wanted to design “public” gardens rather than “private” ones. He was more and more thinking of people, of people in the gardens. A child running, listening. Small animals. And all the birds that fly to your garden when you just provide the plants they prefer. You only have to sit and wait. “What matters first in a garden?” I asked. “Time”, he replied. “Time is important to complete a thought, to complete a project. There are plants in a garden that need one year, ten years, fifteen years to grow to the size you want, and you have to use intermediary plants in the meanwhile…”. “In the meanwhile”, I said “decadence may come”. “Or the great Age”, he said, “the splendid age of maturity. Centenary trees have a dignity…”.
After an extraordinary Romano-Brazilian dinner, Burle Marx left. He had to fly to Portugal, and then to Rio. He would have come back to Italy in the spring to be honored with Laurea Honoris Causa in Florence, after just having received the Carlo Scarpa Award in Treviso. I lost contact with him. Not with him thought.

Sources: Text / Domus No. 764, October 1994, “A memory of Burle Marx”
Image: Photo taken from the book: Roberto Burle Marx. The Modernity of Landscape