Aerial view of a Modernist tropical garden.
One of three homages to Burle Marx in the new exhibition, the Modernist Garden has an abstractly patterned path snaking through bromeliads, elephant’s-ears, and palm trees. New York Botanical Garden

The New York Botanical Garden pulls out all the stops for its new exhibit on Modernist garden designer Roberto Burle Marx.

As the designer of the wavy, world-famous pavements of Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach and a frequent collaborator with architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994) is hardly an obscure figure. But his stock has risen in the United States over the past few years, with a spate of exhibitions and books exploring his vast body of work.

Burle (pronounced bur-lee) Marx is remembered primarily for his nearly 3,000 landscape projects, in which he combined an artist’s instinct for abstraction with a naturalist’s deep love of trees and plants, especially species native to Brazil. There was seemingly nothing that the protean Burle Marx couldn’t (and didn’t) do: At his lush estate outside of Rio, he painted, drew, made prints, designed textiles, played the piano, and cultivated thousands of plants, some of them specimens he had collected on trips into the rainforest. (Numerous species have been named after Burle Marx, such as the flower Heliconia hirsuta burle marxii.)

This summer, the New York Botanical Garden has mounted its largest-ever exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx, on view through September 29. Instead of recreating Burle Marx’s gardens, Brazilian Modern hinges on what NYBG calls a “horticultural tribute” to him—three gardens designed by his Miami-based landscape-architect protégé, the (aptly named) Raymond Jungles. Palms, bromeliads, elephant’s-ears, staghorn ferns, water lilies: Burle Marx’s favorite plants are here, summoning the tropics for visitors eager to escape New York for an hour or two.

CityLab talked to the exhibition’s guest curator Edward J. Sullivan about the artist and his legacy. The conservation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think Burle Marx is being, if not rediscovered, then celebrated in the U.S. these past few years?

There are several ways to answer. One is the timeliness of looking at an artist who was as important as a garden architect and architect, a sculptor, a painter, a musician—he studied all of these things.

Roberto Burle Marx painting in the loggia of his sítio. (Claus Meyer/Tyba)

But what was most important to him was conservation activism. Shortly after the military coup [in Brazil in 1964], he began working with the government, in order to gain an official platform for his activism. At a moment when the planet is in danger, and Brazil specifically has all sorts of challenges with a new government that’s, like the one here, not paying any attention to or undermining the efforts to combat things like global warming—I think that has captured the imagination of many people.

Another reason is that Burle Marx had, particularly in the later years of his lifetime, very strong relationships with colleagues and institutions in the United States. He first came to the U.S. in the 1940s, invited by the architect Richard Neutra. Then he continuously came back. He was a regular feature in this country.

I was delighted in 2016 when the Jewish Museum did a panoramic exhibition. This [new exhibition] is in a way zeroing in or focusing in on specific aspects of Burle Marx that only the New York Botanical Garden could actually do, by creating a variety of spaces, inside and outside, and focusing on the types of plants he used.

How did Burle Marx’s approach differ from the styles of garden design that Americans are more accustomed to, such as formal French or the English cottage style?

From the very beginning of his career as a garden architect, he decided he would only concentrate on Brazilian plants. Up until that time, wealthy Brazilians would want to have an English garden or French garden, with plants that were not native to Brazil. He thought that was both pretentious and ignoring the extraordinary natural richness of Brazil.

Unlike most garden architects, because usually you think of them as someone who works for a private client—and he did that, of course—he did a great deal of work that was inflected by the urban environment. A huge swath of Rio’s seaside is a garden that is not really what you’d call a garden; it was a conceptual landscape built on landfill. This huge Flamengo Park unites the city airport, Santos Dumont, with [Botafogo Bay].

He was intensely concerned with the human and botanical environment as forming a healthy, pleasant place for human interactivity to happen, in a city. That really distinguishes him.

Beachgoers walk along Burle Marx’s pavements on the Avenida Atlântica at Copacabana in 2016. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

What was the role of his estate (sítio) in his career?

Beginning in the 1940s, he lived in what is now called the Sitio Burle Marx, a public monument as of 1985, although he continued to live there [until his death in 1994]. That was really his laboratory. He brought all his signature plants and trees, and [studied them] in collaboration—he was constantly collaborating. His team at the garden at the Sitio, their children or grandchildren are still working there.

Why do Burle Marx’s gardens pair so well with Modernist and Brutalist architecture?

Probably two reasons. [Like] the International Style and the influence of Corbusier, out of which grew Niemeyer, his approach to the garden—to create these gardens with only tropical plants native to Brazil—was itself very radical. There was a synergy; the radical achievement of [Modernist] architects was paralleled by the experiments of Burle Marx.

The 1950s Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, a collaboration between Burle Marx and architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy. (Donatas Dabravolskas/Shutterstock)

The other thing, I think, is that when you are in a Burle Marx garden at a Modern building—[like] the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, often thought of as one of the greatest examples of Brazilian Brutalism—it mitigates the starkness of the concrete and the starkness of the building, and works in harmony. If you’re in this garden, facing the Guanabara Bay, in front of this hulking but fascinating building, it’s this symphony of soft and hard, green and gray. It makes perfect sense if you’re standing in the garden. It adds a note of sensuousness to an otherwise willfully stark type of architecture.

How would he have felt about the continued deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and the environmental policies of Brazil’s current government?

I think he would probably rework or revisit his sometimes scathing writings and lectures that he gave before [Brazil’s] federal council. If he were offered a position with the current government, he might take it, in order to promote, as he did in the ’60s and early ’70s, his agenda of conservation activism.

Burle Marx during a botanical expedition in Ecuador in 1974. (Photograph by Luiz Knud Correia de Araújo, Archive of Luiz Antonio Correia de Araújo)

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