Who is Roberto Burle Marx?

Roberto Burle Marx is a man who many admire. But what was it about his burlesque marxist approach to design that so many found appealing?

Roberto Burle Marx was a Brazilian modernist landscape architect. One of the reasons he is so widely celebrated was his liberation from the prevailing European design styles of classical Romanticism and Beaux Arts formalism – which had influenced landscape design in Brazil until the 1940s.

Burle Marx created a new style inspired by the cultural diversity and richness of the natural environment in his native Brazil.

What did Roberto Burle Marx do?

Burle Marx was not only a landscape designer, but a painter and sculptor. He also turned his hand to creating theatre sets, ceramic murals, concrete reliefs, tapestries and various domestic items such as tablecloths, fabric prints, jewellery, cushions and glass ornaments. Roberto Burle Marx was prolific in his work, producing some 2000 landscape projects alone.

roberto burle marx

What many designers love about Burle Marx were his unerring ideas, dedication and “utter lack of doubt”. Each of his artistic endeavours fed into and nourished the other: all his arts were one and they coalesced in his gardens. Burle Marx was painterly, particularly where planting was concerned. He would lay down swathes of contrasting colours to denote his planting schemes.  In some cases he did away with plans altogether and created his designs from scratch on site or presided over their construction with a keen eye, rearranging the design as it was built.

Roberto Burle Marx Influences and Plants

Plants featured largely in Burle Marx’s designs, particularly native tropical plants.  This is significant because – believe it or not – no one in Brazil had ever championed them before. Ironically, Burle Marx only realized their “beauty and exuberance… their sculpted forms, the outlandish size of their leaves, the splendor of their colour” when, as a young man, he saw specimens in the Dahlem Botanical Gardens in Berlin. It was then he began his life-long love affair with plants.

roberto burle marx garden

Through this discovery he became an ardent conservationist of the Mata Atlântica or Atlantic forest. This is another example of his individuality and non-conformism, as his native countrymen were only interested in plants for their commercial value.

Plants formed the main structural component of his gardens; the bold, architectural forms and colours lending themselves well to layering and massing, and providing horizontal and vertical components.

What was Burle Marx’s form?

Roberto Burle Marx was always searching for form.  He was fascinated by free form and developed novel biomorphic (suggestive of a living organism), arcing and flowing lines and patterns that he used literally and figuratively in his designs.

In the 1950s, he began working with pure geometry, although he avoided symmetry, and even then his geometry was “sensitive”. Specific shapes were softened with outlines of colour in his paintings or in the mosaics of his landscape designs, where a subtler fluidity would become apparent within the right-angles of the panels and rectangular shapes of the individual tiles.

Regardless of which phase Burle Marx was going through, there was forcefulness and certainty in his lines, the whole of which culminated in a bold and uniquely Brazilian graphic language.