The undulating mosaic of the walkway at Rio’s Copacabana beach is perhaps Burle Marx’s most famous work. Photo by Mteixeira62/Wikimedia Commons/CC-by-SA.

Roberto Burle Marx’s life spanned the majority of the 20th century. Born in Brazil in 1909, he lived until 1994. Prolific and multi-talented, Burle Marx is known primarily as a Brazilian landscape architect, but his artistic repertoire included painting, textiles, jewelry, even stage set designs. Burle Marx’s breadth of visual aptitude combined with his love for Brazil’s native plants made him a prolific and colorful landscape architect. He designed thousands of gardens/landscapes and discovered 50 new plant species in his work.

The Palácio do Jaburu in Brasilia is the official home for Brazil’s Vice President. Burle Marx was the landscape architect, and you can see his signature organic shapes and grouping of single plants in lines or blocks. Photo by Michel Temer/Wikimedia Commons/CC-by-2.0.

Experimentation in a Tropical Key

Burle Marx pioneered and shaped tropical modernist landscape design. Ironically, it was while Burle Marx was studying painting in Berlin that he discovered Brazil’s native flora. While studying in Germany, Burle Marx visited Berlin’s botanical gardens, which included native Brazilian plants. When Burle Marx returned to his native Brazil, he became an advocate for using the richness of native plants rather than relying on European flora, the fashion at the time. In fact, his attention to native plants led him to be advocate for the conservation of Brazil’s rainforest.

Burle Marx’s design incorporates blocks of color much like a modernist painting. Photo by Rodrigo Soldon/Flickr Commons/CC-by-2.0.

Stylistically, Burle Marx leaned toward modern and avant garde with influence from cubism. He incorporated abstract shapes and opted for asymmetry. Burle Marx saw landscape design as a type of painting, simply with different materials. In a 1954 essay, he writes, “Juxtaposing of the aesthetic attributes of these art movements [cubism and abstractionism] with elements from nature was what drew me toward new experimentation. I then chose to use natural topography as a surface for composition, taking mineral or plant elements found in nature as materials for aesthetic organization, just as other artists use canvas, paints and brushes for their compositions.”

Burle Marx and two associates designed the landscape for Caracas, Venezula’s large Parque del Este. The fountain and brilliantly colored native trees here are part of the 200 acre park. Photo by Owen Forever/Wikimedia Commons/CC-by-4.0.

A Global Legacy

Both an ecologist and an artist, Burle Marx approached landscape architecture holistically, balancing concerns such as color, shape with the plant’s natural requirements and how they interact with the environment. For instance, rather than mixing various plants together like a European cottage garden, Burle Marx grouped one type of plant into a sculptural block, which allowed the plants to thrive and created a strong visual impression.

The water and sculptural groups of plants outside the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia both reflect and soften the concrete, linear structure. Photo by Ana de Oliveira/AIG-MRE/Flickr Commons/CC-by-2.0.

From private residences to public spaces, mainly in Brazil, but also in Venezuela and farther afield in Malaysia and the US, Burle Marx’s prolific career drew attention to the riches of Brazil’s tropical natural diversity and the possibilities of landscape shaped by both place and modern artistic sensibilities. His former private residence and gardens, Sítio Burle Marx, is under consideration as UNESCO World Heritage Site.