Roberto Burle Marx stands as one of the towering figures of 20th century landscape architecture, yet he left relatively little in the way of writing that describes, defends, or otherwise elucidates his work. A new collection of lectures, edited by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, helps fill that void.
Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism consists of twelve lectures written and delivered by Burle Marx over the latter half of his career. In the preface, Doherty explains he first learned of these lectures as an intern at the Roberto Burle Marx Studio in the summer of 1996, two years after Burle Marx’s death.
“As a parting gift, Haruyoshi Ono, Burle Marx’s successor as director of the studio, presented me a photocopy of every lecture they then had that Burle Marx had delivered in English,” he writes. “I had little to no Portuguese, and they felt this was the one way I could carry something of Roberto with me and get to know him better.”
The lectures Doherty received in 1996 form the basis of this volume. Like Doherty, many of today’s practitioners never had the opportunity to hear Burle Marx present his work, let alone meet him. In this context, Lectures: Landscape As Art and Urbanism is a valuable resource that helps reinforce Burle Marx’s legacy.
As the book’s title suggests, the lectures shed light on Burle Marx the urbanist. He recognized the city was “the ‘habitat’ of modern man, offering him simultaneously a great variety of choice in his job and in his way of life.” The price for this variety, however, was “many difficulties which hamper his creative capacity due to deficient housing facilities, inadequate transportation, noise and sounds which tear him to pieces; not to mention other deeper difficulties in his work relationship, the opportunities of education, and in the enjoyment of the pleasures the city offers him.”
Burle Marx’s solution was to bring nature into the city. “The brutality of present urban conditions make the garden a compelling necessity,” he wrote. “One must bring nature into the reach of man and, above all, take man back to nature.” The garden was the tool for achieving this goal, a place where one could “find rest, relaxation, recreation, and above all the feeling that his is living in, and integrated into, this space.”
He even saw gardens as having a didactic role: “The sight of that association of plants gives us the impression of a covenant for living together.” A garden was “a spatial condition of community life…a place which provides the desire any man has to communicate with his fellow men, and with nature as an aesthetic phenomenon and as a manifestation of life.”
Burle Marx also viewed landscape architecture as a tool for preservation. “It seems to be to be almost an obligation of the landscape architect to combat destruction and to preserve certain ill-fated species in danger of extinction, in order that they may survive for the education and enjoyment of future generations.”
Burle Marx was deeply concerned about the impact of development practices and their impact on the landscape, and saw landscape architects as defenders of the natural environment, prefiguring today’s focus on environmental issues within the profession.
What these lectures illustrate most clearly, however, is the depth of Burle Marx’s love of plants. “Plants have always been an integral part of my life,” he wrote in a lecture simply titled “The Plant.” And in “The Garden as a Way of Life,” he declared that the plant is the “the most basic element of composition.”
Of course, this is not exactly a revelation for those familiar with Burle Marx’s life and career. He was obsessed with plants from an early age, an obsession that guided his career and manifested itself in both his designs and in his personal collection of thousands of plants culled from the Brazilian countryside.
Still, Lectures provides valuable insight into this obsession. Botanical names litter the pages. He writes lovingly of bromeliads, philodendrons, and heliconia. When describing his own designs, he devotes the most attention not to form or spatial qualities, but to plant selection and arrangement, underscoring their importance to his design process.
Intriguingly, much of Burle Marx’s writing in this area prefigures the trends that have shaped planting design over the last 20 years. He proclaims the importance of native plants, saying that “ideally, we should only plant species native to the area.” Elsewhere, he explains “the garden that has the best chances of survival and needs the minimum amount of care for such survival will be indigenous.”
Furthermore, he understood designed plant combinations as informed not only by aesthetic considerations, but by ecological ones as well. “Observing the demands of ecology and aesthetic compatibility, the landscape architect is able to create artificial associations of the greatest expressiveness,” he writes.
“To make artificial landscapes means neither to deny nor to imitate nature slavishly. It means, instead, to know how to transport and associate, with personal, selective judgement, the results of a long, loving, and intense observation.”
In the current context — in which many landscape architecture educational programs dedicate minimal time to plant material and planting design is sometimes seen as a specialized skill set — Burle Marx’s love of plants and the role that they played in his design process stands out.
While this is overall a handsomely presented collection, there are certain design choices that make reading it more difficult than necessary. The lectures are printed with narrow margins, which make Burle Marx’s words seem as though they are liable to scatter off the page. The effect is heightened by the book designers’ decision to present selected sentences in a larger type than others for emphasis. The result is not wholly satisfying.
The book also includes breathtaking photos of Burle Marx’s built works captured by Leonardo Finotti, but they are not keyed to references in the text itself, which can make for a frustrating experience. Those looking for clear, visual illustrations of Burle Marx’s comments may want to keep Google close at hand while reading.
In all, though, Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism is an immensely valuable resource for those of us, like Doherty, with little to no Portuguese. It gives those of us in the English-speaking world an unmediated line to Roberto Burle Marx; that alone is worth the price of admission.