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Burle Marx: oasis of beauty and knowledge.

With harmonious gardens and art treasures, the former home of this landscape architect is a fertile learning center for botanists and tourists

"One needs to surround oneself with objects of poetic emotion," Roberto Burle Marx was fond of saying. It was a quote he had borrowed from the architect Le Corbusier, but one the visionary landscape designer made his own as he filled his estate with collections of plants, paintings, sculpture, pottery, and religious art--the accumulated treasures of a long and creative life.

Now, four years after his death, Sitio Roberto Burle Marx is open to the public. Botanists and landscape architects journey to the horticultural oasis in Barra de Guaratiba, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, to view its comprehensive plant collections. At once a laboratory and an exhibit space, the one-hundred-acre estate displays more than thirty-five hundred tropical and semitropical plant species in its greenhouses and gardens. Even ordinary plant lovers come to admire the myriad varieties of bromeliads and heliconia plus 250 species of palms. Among the latter is a specimen from Ceylon that blooms once every seventy or eighty years; it flowered just before Burle Marx's death. Some three thousand specialized books on botany, architecture, and landscaping attract scholars to the study center.

It is exactly as Burle Marx would have wished it. In 1985, while continuing to live at the Sitio, he deeded the property to the federal government in trust for posterity. His dream was to establish a school for landscape architects and botanists and to open the site to the visiting public, thus avoiding subdivision of the property after his death and ensuring that his collections would remain intact.

If a visitor's first views of the landscape evoke a sense of deja vu, there is a simple explanation. The features that make the Sitio so visually pleasing recall elements of the magnificent parks and gardens that Burle Marx designed throughout Brazil and beyond. From Rio's three-hundred-acre Flamengo Park to smaller gems across five continents, Burle Marx stamped hundreds of gardens with his bold signature. So pervasive is his influence that the American Institute of Architects proclaimed Burle Marx "the real creator of the modern garden."

In the Sitio as elsewhere, water plants float on tranquil pools; delicate blooms are juxtaposed with granite slabs; rounded river stones contrast with slender vertical leaves; walls extending from buildings provide a backdrop for epiphytes; and massed plants of a single species create grand sweeps of color. Of all Burle Marx's garden innovations, perhaps the most universally adopted is the use of lush tropical foliage like that found in his homeland.

Such was not always the case. Before Burle Marx waged his one-man campaign to create gardens in harmony with their surroundings, European design dominated Brazilian gardens as surely as Portuguese elements infused Brazil's architecture. Formality was the norm, with symmetrical boxwood hedges maintaining order, and straight paths slicing through beds of nonnative blooms such as roses, carnations, dahlias, and chrysanthemums.

Ironically, it was a trip to Germany that first opened the young Burle Marx's eyes to the design possibilities of tropical plants. At age eighteen, encountering some problems with his vision, he departed for Germany to consult an ophthalmologist. For the next two years he studied painting and music in Berlin. On weekends he visited the Dahlem Botanical Gardens, where the sight of rare Brazilian plants struck him as an epiphany. He returned again and again, drawn by the beauty of plants that at home were considered little better than weeds.

Even at this young age, Burle Marx had already developed an interest in cultivating gardens. Born in 1909 in Sao Paulo to a Brazilian mother and a German father, he was greatly influenced by his mother's love of both gardening and music. When he was four years old, the family of eight moved to the Leme district of Rio, where the precocious youngster soon claimed his own garden plot and began growing vegetables for the family's dinner table. A year or two later, when his produce earned him some extra pocket money, Burle Marx promptly sent off for seeds, thus launching his lifelong hobby of collecting plants.

The fruits of his lifetime collection thrive in the varied terrain and microclimates of his hillside gardens, where plants are grouped according to climatic needs. Lath houses at the base of the hill shade tropical plants that grow naturally under the canopy of the Amazon rain forest. Dainty orchids of varying hues fill the orchid house. Aloes, agaves, and yuccas dot the sun-drenched higher slopes. Rare succulents flourish atop boulders and smaller rocks, while a granite wall supports epiphytic bromeliads.

At Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, serendipity lurks around every tree trunk: Fanciful sculptures pop up on a patch of lawn, or an abstract painting suspended among the foliage catches the light. Even while he earned international acclaim as a landscape architect, the multitalented Burle Marx enjoyed a parallel career as a successful artist. Raymond Jungles, a landscape architect and close friend, calls Burle Marx "one of the last true Renaissance men of his time."

When he returned from Germany in 1930, Burle Marx enrolled at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio, studying painting under Candido Portinari; he pursued gardening as a hobby. Among fellow students were Oscar Niemeyer and other young men destined to make their mark as international architects. Burle Marx's painting career flourished at the same time that one of his professors, Lucio Costa, invited him to design first residential, then public, gardens. A stint as director of parks in Recife led to his first public garden design in a square and, significantly, the first of Brazil's ecological gardens. By 1952, in Sao Paulo, retrospective exhibitions were being held of both his paintings and landscape designs, to be followed by similar exhibitions in London, Venice, and Zurich.

In 1949 Burle Marx, together with his brother Siegfried, purchased the estate that would become the center of his creative life. The property, an old coffee plantation known as Sitio Santo Antonio da Bica, included a hilltop chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony and a three-room priest's house, both built in the seventeenth century. Burle Marx gradually restored the buildings, meanwhile transferring his plant collections to the grounds. In 1973 he moved permanently to the old country house.

At the same time, Burle Marx began transporting to his "Campo Grande" the stones from Victorian buildings that were being demolished in Rio. As the aged stone began to take the shape of a building hidden among palms and tropical foliage, many of his guests commented on the illusion of stumbling upon an ancient temple rain in the rain forest.

The "ruin" metamorphosed into Burle Marx's soaringly beautiful studio, the place where he spent quiet hours painting at his easel or working out creative solutions to design problems. In the end, to be nearer his work, he even moved his bedroom to the studio. A carved wooden angel watches over the bed that is covered with a cloth of his own design.

The light, airy studio is where the visitor can best appreciate the range of Burle Marx's artistic output. He expressed himself mainly in painting, but also in sculpture, murals, tile work, tapestries, and jewelry; he even designed stage sets and Carnival decorations. A smaller studio open to the elements showcases Burle Marx's skill in working with tile. The versatile artist covered the inside wall with a geometrical design in blue and white tile, which he highlighted with staghorn ferns.

Though he began as a representational artist, Burle Marx became known in Brazil for his abstracts. Paintings now displayed in the studio evoke the curved lines and intertwined shapes of leaves, vines, branches, and roots, reflecting the artist's intimate knowledge of nature. Some paintings resemble a rooftop view of the ingenious gardens he designed to fit the spaces between skyscrapers.

Just as Burle Marx's art draws on natural forms for its themes, his artist's training shows up in the form and composition of is gardens. "To create gardens is a marvelous art--possibly one of the oldest manifestations of art," he stated in the foreword to a book about his gardens written by Sima Eliovson. The strong graphic elements of his gardens underscore his statement. In a lecture on "The Garden as a Form of Art," he once explained, "I decided to use natural topography as a field of work and the elements of nature, mineral and vegetable, as materials for the plastic construction, as other artists worked on canvas with paint and brush." On other occasions he put it more simply: "I paint my gardens."

The Main House, enlarged into a long L-shaped building, is the latest part of the complex to reveal its treasures to the public. (During an electrical storm early this year, lightning damaged security equipment and delayed the opening.) From the hill side, visitors approach a low-slung, white country house roofed with red tile. Characteristically, plantings complement, but don't obscure, its outlines. The most notable exterior feature is the long veranda, where informal gatherings once took place under the gaze of carved figureheads that look out over mangroves in the distance.

Inside, the art-filled rooms serve as a repository for Burle Marx's collections, offering a window on the wide-ranging interests of its celebrated occupant. An early self-portrait hangs in one of the guest rooms. Whimsical faces top fat water jugs from Minas Gerais. Terra-cotta pots line the porch, while baroque religious statues and eighteenth-century paintings from Cuzco give the interior a museum-like quality. Anyone who has ever succumbed to the lure of an authentic piece of folk art will appreciate the "objects of poetic emotion" that surrounded Burle Marx and gave him pleasure.

The endearing displays of folk art are largely the outgrowth of Burle Marx's plant-collecting expeditions. Early in his career, when he decided to incorporate native plants into landscape designs, he discovered that commercial nurseries lacked the kinds of plants he was seeking. So he began making frequent forays into Amazonia and other regions of Brazil--the swamps of the Pantanal, the grasslands of Mato Grosso, the dry northeast--where as-yet-undiscovered plant species awaited. As his commissions took him to other parts of South America and the world, he returned with tropical plants from other countries, simultaneously bringing back the folk art of various cultures.

These expeditions into the wild made him something of an adventurer among landscape gardeners. He experimented with new plant finds at the Sftio, duplicating theft growing conditions and propagating specimens for future use. The self-sufficiency of his facilities at Guaratiba enabled Burle Marx to supply his own plants for his landscape projects, a circumstance that freed him from dependence on the nurseries' limited inventories and gave free reign to his creativity.

As modest as he was gifted, the renowned landscape architect referred to himself as simply a "gardener." In actuality, he was a self-taught botanist who in the course of his long career discovered dozens of indigenous Brazilian plants. Though he garnered numerous accolades from governments throughout Europe and the Americas, probably the most satisfying recognition of his work came from having several plant species named after him. Heliconia burle-marxii serves as the stylized, and stylish, logo for Sitio Roberto Burle Marx.

An entertaining pavilion adjacent to the house suggests the lively parties once hosted by its genial owner. A giant mural by Burle Marx enlivens one wall. At the opposite end, stone columns rear up, sprouting spiky bromeliads like the plumage of a startled bird. Behind them a rectilinear pool filled with water lilies and other water-loving plants is backed by a granite wall that appears to keep wild vegetation at bay. Its irregular niches and ledges support still more varieties of bromeliads. Ficus trees and philodendron Monstera deliciosa hint at a tropical forest beyond the cultivated area.

Cariocas love to party, and Burle Marx, a resident of Rio for most of his life, was no exception. Though he never married, the legendary artist surrounded himself with an international coterie of friends who shared one or more of his passions. "He was an amazing man," says Jungles, who first met Burle Marx when the latter lectured in Florida. "He lived life as an art form. He ate great foods, drank great wines, had great friends. He loved to entertain. Every Sunday there'd be a lunch with twenty people sitting around his table. There was a constant stream of friends from all around the world--botanists, architects, painters, clients--or anybody interested in gardens."

The English artist Margaret Mee was a frequent visitor, as were noted Brazilian architects like Lucio Costa, and, in the early years, Oscar Niemeyer. Danielle Mitterand, wife of the French president, dropped by during a helicopter tour of Latin American cultural capitals. One afternoon, according to Jungles, a film shooting nearby prompted a spontaneous party at which actors Sonia Braga and Richard Dreyfus were guests.

It requires little imagination to picture this Brazilian bon vivant holding court on the patio, caipirinha in hand, serving moqueca from his collection of traditional stoneware casseroles and singing snatches of operatic arias or regaling friends with witticisms in multiple languages. On his birthday the celebrants sometimes swelled to a throng of hundreds, all drawn by the magnetism of the man and the setting.

If there was one thing that caused the ebullient artist to lapse into seriousness--even melancholy--it was the destruction of nature in the name of progress. "The Bible describes a paradise in which there was a balance between the plants, the animals and man," he wrote. "Unfortunately, mankind sought to dominate nature and lost their paradise. With the knowledge we have today of ecology... we are now trying to regain that lost paradise." By cultivating plants that he found in the wild, some close to extinction in their native habitat, this pioneer environmentalist tried to raise awareness of their value and protect them from wanton destruction.

Today schoolchildren file through the Sitio escorted by their teachers, learning the environmental lessons that Burle Marx sought to impart while he was alive. On some weekends the studio serves as a classroom for intensive two-day courses in botany. Outstanding live plant collections enable botanists to study the characteristics of different species without resorting to dried or potted specimens.

"Roberto was landscaping to the day he died," says Jungles. "He was a ball of energy. He'd always be the first up in the morning, first one to lead the charge out into the nursery." Visitors to the Sitio are even now enjoying the plants that Burle Marx cultivated shortly before his death.

Villagers still climb the hill to the white-washed chapel for Sunday mass, just as their ancestors had done as far back as 1681. Daily tours of the grounds likewise take visitors up the hill, past several species of agave planted on the sunny hillside, to the church flanked by royal palms. From the church entrance, a magnificent view of the Guaratiba Valley spreads out beyond the flora that appears as natural as though it had always grown there.

Visitors appearing at the Sftio gate on the feast of Saint Anthony, June 13, may join the villagers on the procession up the tree-lined drive to the church for the coronation of their patron saint. "They say that it works very well for single women," says Zulmira Pope, archivist for the Sftio. Smiling, she explains, "Saint Anthony is said to help with marriages."

A bigger celebration takes place on August 4, the birthday of Burle Marx. On this occasion musicians take their positions amid palms and ponytails in the gardens just outside the studio, filling the grounds with music while visitors pay tribute to their unseen host. Even if not present in the flesh, Burle Marx is seemingly here in spirit, thoroughly approving of the celebration in his name. Says Pope, "This is the objective of our everyday work: to keep Burle Marx's legacy vivid."

Burle Marx once defined a garden as "the result of an arrangement of natural materials according to aesthetic laws. Interwoven throughout," he added, "are the artist's outlook on life, his past experiences, his affections, his attempts, his mistakes, and his successes." Nowhere is this more true than in his own gardens, where exuberant plantings reflect the larger-than-life personality of the artist who created beauty in so many forms.

For information on tours, contact Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba, 2019 Barra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro/RJ CEP 23020-240 Brazil. Tel./FAX: (021) 410-1412 / 410-1171.
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Title Annotation:former house of landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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