Reflections on ‘A Brazilian Odyssey’

Posted on March 17th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Dr Jill Raggett (Reader in Gardens and Designed Landscapes, Writtle College) reports on the GHS Tour of the Gardens and Landscapes of Roberto Burle Marx in March 2009.

This is a personal account of the tour and reflects her experiences and reactions as one member of a party fortunate enough to travel to Brazil, not a learned article on the career and works of Roberto Burle Marx.

On the 15 March 1982 a farsighted horticultural lecturer took an enthusiastic group of horticultural students to hear Roberto Burle Marx talk at the Royal College of Art in London; I was fortunate enough to be one of those students. What a character was revealed at that lecture, a man with a passion for his subjects; humanity’s need for plants in an urban setting, the role of the endangered Brazilian flora and the value of artistic and design skills to produce stunning landscapes or, as my notes from the lecture records, his statement ‘indiscriminate planting makes a salad’. His lecture awakened me to the role Burle Marx had played in creating a landscape design style for Brazil, prior to this my knowledge of South America had resulted from a study of Brasilia at school; how strange it had seemed, this need to create a capital city in the middle of a continental sized country. Though considerable time had passed since these events it only took a glance at the GHS NEWS to know that the ‘Brazilian Odyssey’ offered the opportunity of a lifetime. My cheque was in the post!

Modern air travel whisks one around the world so fast, one minute drinking tea to pass the time in the departure lounge at Heathrow the next minute viewing Rio de Janeiro from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. The city of Rio is one of contrasts, vertical sky scrappers jostle for space between the rounded mountains and the sweeping golden beaches with their adornments of Burle Marx’s black and white mosaic pavements. It took me a day or two to come to an accommodation with this vast sprawling city, the luxury of the hotel district that faces the blue sea and the poverty of the sprawling favellas that climb up the encircling mountains.

Jeff Sainsbury had devised a programme that would reveal the Burle Marx’s work in a structured way; the sites visited, his own considerable expertise, along with the skills of a local tour guide to help with cultural and language issues, and an expert associated either with the Burle Marx Office or with the management of the gardens and landscapes being viewed. There was no shortage of people to question when one wished to know more, or discuss a specific issue.

The roof garden of the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio was created to integrate with Rio’s new Modernist architecture of the late 1930s, with advice from Le Corbusier. The garden showed Brazil a new way to landscape, far removed from the formal constraints and plant preferences of the colonial style. It seemed like a dream to be walking in this space under the watchful eyes of the security men (such staff were our constant companions at most sites and formed a visible reminder of the dangers faced by both the properties and the visitors).

Our visit to Copacabana beach allowed me to begin to appreciate the boldness and extent of the Burle Marx vision for public landscape; the mosaic work of abstract art laid out under the feet of pedestrians. Burle Marx considered it an artwork for the city but sadly that intension seems only partly recognised, and one wonders if a conservation management plan is in place to carry that vision forward into the future? Repairs to damaged areas seem poorly executed and drain covers were not refitted to the correct orientation for the design. Visits to other public landscapes in Rio with failing fountains, poorly maintained planting and new additions such as poorly sited litters bins all demonstrated that the integrity of these landscapes are being lost. However, at sites such as Pampulha, in Belo Horizonte, there were signs that the public landscapes of Burle Marx had champions, and were receiving recognition and some restoration.

Stairway and planting at Sitio, Burle Marx’x own garden

Stairway and planting at Sitio, Burle Marx’x own garden (photo by Malcolm Raggett).

Sitio provided a chance to place the designer in the context of his home; the complex of his house, studios, garden and plant nursery. This was further enhanced by the company of Roberio Dias, the Director of the Sitio and former colleague of Burle Marx. Roberio remained with us during our time in Rio and provided both valuable insights into the pressures the various landscapes faced and personal reflections on the character of the designer. Burle Marx considered his garden as a laboratory where ideas could be explored, especially a place for experimentation with plants he had found on his expeditions to collect specimens from the various habitats in Brazil. He was constantly changing his garden as he experimented with new plant species to create a range of plant associations, a challenge for those who now have responsibility for this special place.

At the Sitio large trees gave dramatic performances, with vast trunks and buttress flairs, whilst providing shade for the lower storey. Beneath the trees’ canopies, abstract patterns were created in groundcover plants with tiers of foliage of other species rising through them; these plantings show the need for skilled gardeners with an appreciation of the required aesthetic. Being the tropics there is no specific season for leaf fall, sweeping takes place on a daily basis, a time consuming activity. Though the Sitio is owned by the State, the funding for ongoing repairs and maintenance have become mired in bureaucracy and there was none of the commercial enterprise seen in gardens open in Britain; the opening of a small book counter to sell publications to eager GHS members was a major undertaking, as it was lunch time!

Red foliaged Iresine ‘flows’ under the Edmundo Cavanellas Residence (1954), Petropolis (photo by Jill Raggett).

Red foliaged Iresine ‘flows’ under the Edmundo Cavanellas Residence (1954), Petropolis (photo by Jill Raggett).

Private gardens made for the wealthy elite of Brazil allowed Burle Marx to create small gems of design often flanked by the tropical forest he wished to retain or reinstate. The gardens he created were at the same time artworks, places of relaxation, statements of prestige and a negotiation with the surrounding landscape and tropical vegetation. Many of these places were very much appreciated by their owners and were examples of meticulous maintenance that a public landscape would struggle to attain. At the Edmundo Cavanellas Residence (1954) now the Gilbert Strunk Residence, a river of red foliaged Iresine appeared to flow under a ‘suspension bridge’ created by an Oscar Niemeyer house placed in the bottom of a valley. At this property a dedicated gardener cares for the grid pattern of plain and variegated grasses, once a week using the equivalent of a billhook to separate their root systems as the grasses try to merge into each other. These gardens demand rigorous maintenance to ensure the designer’s vision is retained. A scene that often appears so natural, as at the Mangrove Fazenda, a dream of a garden, is full of detailed care, such as the removal of foliage obscuring the low level flowering of a ginger. In many of the gardens the atmosphere was enhanced by a welcome glass of freshly prepared fruit juice served by a butler, and at the wonderful Vargem Grande Fazenda GHS members participated fully in experiencing the garden by using the Burle Marx swimming pools created as the finale to a series of water gardens; one of my favourites in both its location in the rolling countryside and the interesting range of viewpoints created within a relatively small design.

Garden for the Ministry of the Army (1970), Brasilia (photo by Malcolm Raggett).

Garden for the Ministry of the Army (1970), Brasilia (photo by Malcolm Raggett).

Our tour ended in Brasilia, a city in thrall to Modernist architecture, where Oscar Niemeyer wishes his amazing buildings to rise unadorned from the ground. Aided by an exceptionally knowledgeable local guide we explored the city’s planning, architecture, politics and culture. Visits were made to a number of Burle Marx landscapes but some of the final ones seen gave an excellent summary to the possible survival of the works of Burle Marx. At the Belgian Ambassador’s house the party was made welcome and saw the remnants of the designer’s work that are slowly being lost under new layers, while the following morning we saw restoration work underway at the garden created for the Ministry of the Army.

Haruyoshi Ono, a senior partner of the Burle Marx Design Office, in the Garden for the Ministry of the Army, Brasilia, discussing its restoration with the military (photo by Jill Raggett).

Haruyoshi Ono, a senior partner of the Burle Marx Design Office, in the Garden for the Ministry of the Army, Brasilia, discussing its restoration with the military (photo by Jill Raggett).

I was trying to decide how accurate the Brazilian Army would be in such an undertaking when a team from the Burle Marx Design Office accompanied by a number of people in uniforms appeared clutching plans and walking through the landscape. It occurred to me that if ever humanity comes to its senses and declares ‘World Peace’ there will be no shortage of gardens for the military to restore.

Roberto Burle Marx was a man who liberated landscape design in Brazil. Of the remarkable designed landscapes I saw it was quickly apparent that, as with so many gardens, the legacy of the designer lies with the aesthetic appreciation and practical skills of subsequent gardeners as well as the vision and budgets of landscape managers.

The tour proved to be all that it promised and much more, which was due to the incredible planning and skills of Jeff Sainsbury, excellent local guides and the landscape professionals who joined us. My fellow travellers all had much to add to the experience and my understanding of the gardens.

See more of the remarkable designs of Burle Marx

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