The 2016 Olympic Games on TV drew my attention to Brazil’s Copacabana Beach, where three miles of colorfully designed promenade renewed my interest in the works of the late native designer Roberto Burle Marx, one of the world’s great landscape architects. While in Rio de Janeiro on a trip to see his projects in April 2015, I was especially impressed by two extensive gardens: Sítio Roberto Burle Marx and the Edmundo Cavanellas Residence. These spaces represent remarkable instances of his thinking about landscape design.

Influenced by Surrealist painters Jean Arp and Jean Miro, and also by Cubism, Burle Marx usually referenced art in his landscape plans. He also made paintings of his gardens. The most celebrated features of his works are the elegant, organic lines clearly indicated in his layouts, plant palette, and pavement. In the Edmundo Cavanellas Residence, curved plant beds and simple, clear and well-detailed hardscape elements form the bones of the garden. Planting volumes vary and bold colors and textures are used with intent.

The concepts of contrast and harmony are also vital to his work. He used primary colors to convey an accessible visual language, and rather than rely mainly on flowers, he contrasted the color of plant leaves and texture to create beautiful designs. He extended this reliance on contrast to elements such as gravel, water, and paving. In addition, monochrome blocks of plants were employed, with a species repeated as well as similar kinds of plants grouped to emphasize their common elements.

Walking through the Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, I observed that obeying the rule of nature is also fundamental to his garden design. Burle Marx did not intend that his gardens should copy natural landscapes. Nor did he want them to function as metaphors. His gardens honored nature’s regularity on three-dimensional canvases over time, highlighting vernacular plants and paving materials. In the Sítio, he accumulated more than 3,500 different species, and studied and multiplied the plants he used in his labors. For Burle Marx, native Brazilian plants represented both a natural and a national heritage and was established as a value in this garden.

To truly experience a garden, one needs to walk around it, observing over time and from different angles. Wandering in the Sítio, breathing in the scents of thousands of plants, hearing lovely birdsong, I felt inspired to wonder: Can I paint landscapes? What does art mean to landscape? Finally, is painting a good approach to landscape design?

Landscape design priorities are typically generated by the scale and function of a project, yet it is not productive to read Burle Marx’s gardens isolated from his paintings; there is a perpetual dialogue between his landscape design and his visual art (he was a sculptor, as well), with one form continually feeding the other. From the ground plane to 3-D displays, from formal to ideological expressions, Roberto Burle Marx‘s gardens evolved my understanding about the relationship between painting and landscaping. In both, emotional elements and spiritual symbols are the main pursuit.

For more information about Roberto Burle Marx and his artwork, visit this exhibition announcement from The Jewish Museum, in New York City. Xian Li is a designer in the Laguna Beach studio. The image above is courtesy of The Jewish Museum and Xian Li. 


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