Friday, December 14, 2018

So You Want to Learn About: Roberto Burle Marx

The "So You Want to Learn About" series highlights books focused on a particular theme: think "socially responsible architecture" and "Le Corbusier," rather than broad themes like "housing" or "modern architects." Therefore the series aims to be a resource for finding decent reading materials on certain topics, born of a desire to further define noticeable areas of interest in the books I review. And while I haven't reviewed every title, I am familiar with each one; these are not blind recommendations.

About one year ago my book 100 Years, 100 Landscape Designs came out. There were a number of landscape designers that just had to be in the book, one of them being Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994), the great Brazilian landscape designer and artist who single-handedly defined landscape architecture in South America, not just Brazil. (A couple of his landscapes worked their way into my book, both carrying his influential name: Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, 1949, and Parque da Cidade Roberto Burle Marx, 1950.) The research for my book led me to obtain a few relevant old titles that I came across, some hard to find. But a couple books released this year, both compiling the landscape designer's own words, prompted me to put together this SYW2 post about Burle Marx. These are not all of the books devoted to Burle Marx, but they're more than I ever anticipated I'd have in my library, especially given how few English titles exist on the influential figure.

In-print:


Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship by Catherine Seavitt Nordenson | University of Texas Press | 2018 | Amazon / IndieBound
Depositions and Roberto Burle Marx Lectures, both published this year, indicate that Burle Marx was almost as prolific with his words as with his garden designs; the latter number in the hundreds and by some accounts around 2,000, though it wasn't until this year that I noticed how much he wrote and lectured during his life. Depositions takes a precise sliver of time and venue, presenting English translations of eighteen "environmental position pieces" that Burle Marx wrote for the Cultura journal between 1967 and 1974. What makes this output unique is that he was writing for, and delivering the pieces to, the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Culture under the country's military dictatorship. Yet he used the opportunity to argue for, among other things, the conservation of the Brazilian landscape. Burle Marx, it appears, was politically savvy as well as a talented designer.

Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist by Jens Hoffmann, Claudia J. Nahson | The Jewish Museum / Yale University Press | 2016 | Amazon / IndieBound | Review
One of the best exhibitions of 2016 was Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist at, of all places, the Jewish Museum. The venue was responding to the fact Burle Marx was born from a German Jewish father and a Brazilian Catholic mother, but the show most notably presented Burle Marx as a multifaceted creator of landscapes, paintings, pottery, sculptures, carpets, and other artworks clearly exhibiting his hand. Like most exhibition catalogs, Brazilian Modernist is full of images of works from the show, organized by theme/medium, but it also includes a section where contemporary artists examine the impact and legacy of Burle Marx.

Roberto Burle Marx Lectures: Landscape as Art and Urbanism edited by Gareth Doherty | Lars Müller Publishers | 2018 | Amazon / IndieBound
This book is more than 20 years in the making, going back to 1996, when Gareth Doherty spent the summer in Burle Marx's Rio studio as a student and was given by Haruyoshi Ono, Burle Marx's successor, photocopies of every English-language lecture Burle Marx ever delivered. Coming one year after Ono's passing at the age of 73, Roberto Burle Marx Lectures presents a dozen lectures, some given in English and some given in Portuguese and translated into English; Doherty is clear about the circumstances of each lecture and how he lightly edited their contents for publication. The lectures, with titles like "The Garden as a Way of Life" and "The Function of the Garden," follow a lengthy but helpful introduction by Doherty on Burle Marx's career and his lecturing. All of these texts are bookended by dozens of full-color (they have to be with Burle Marx's garden designs) photographs by Leonardo Finotti, some of them specially made for Doherty's book.

Out-of-print:


The Gardens of Roberto Burle Marx by Sima Eliovson | Timber Press | 1991 | Amazon
Three years before Burle Marx died at the age of 84, The Garden of Roberto Burle Marx was released, calling itself "the only authorized study of the life and work of one of the world's greatest living landscape architects." It was also the last book by garden writer Sima Eliovson, who died in 1990. The book has a short foreword by Robert Burle Marx and is full of drawings and photographs he made available for the book. The format is pretty straightforward, with two parts: "The man and his background," a good overview of his background and career; and "The gardens -- in approximate chronological order," presenting 25 of his hundreds of gardens, from the Sitio where he lived and worked to a garden on a farm for Clemente Gomes (a repeat client) in the late 1980s. Horticulturists will appreciate the first of two appendices, a list of plants mentioned in the text, while completists will like the second, a list of "significant landscape projects."

Roberto Burle Marx: Landscapes Reflected edited by Rosssana Vaccarino | Princeton Architectural Press | 2000 | Amazon
Edited words about this book from my Unpacking blog back in 2016: "The third book in the 'Landscape Views' series from PAPress and Harvard GSD is, like the other two, a good, scholarly introduction to its subject. Unfortunately the duotone photographs do not do justice to Burle Marx's colorful planting designs and paintings that illustrate the slim book. That leaves the essays, which focus on a park he designed in Caracas, two residential gardens in Brazil, his output as a painter and visual artist, and his 'founding of modern Brazilian landscape architecture.' It's a good start, though those wishing for more visual stimulus should opt for the book the Jewish Museum published (see above) as a companion to their exhibition on Burle Marx."

Roberto Burle Marx: The Unnatural Art of the Garden by William Howard Adams | The Museum of Modern Art | 1991 | Amazon
More edited words from my Unpacking blog from 2016: "When the Jewish Museum held its 2016 exhibition on Roberto Burle Marx, it boasted of being the first exhibition on the famous Brazilian landscape architect since a 1991 show at MoMA, The Unnatural Art of the Garden, which obviously focused on his gardens. As much as I appreciate the diversity in the Jewish Museum exhibition, I find his gardens the most interesting, not just for the way they appear in photos (I've yet to see one in person) but also in the way he designed them; his colorful plans have a beauty that was matched by the plantings that followed from them. This slim catalog to the MoMA show has plenty of those drawings as well as even more color photographs by Michael Moran. Half the book is devoted to a dozen projects documented as such, while the other half is comprised of a two-part essay by the exhibition's guest curator, William Howard Adams."

The Tropical Gardens of Burle Marx by P.M. Bardi | Reinhold Publishing Corporation | 1964 | Amazon
This book was published the same year that the military junta took control in Brazil, but per the inside flap, "this book would have been published some years ago [but Burle Marx] was anxious to include the most interesting part of his work, the gardens of Caracas and the Beira Mar of Rio de Janeiro." Billed as the "only [book] devoted to a tropical landscape gardener and his work," The Tropical Gardens of Burle Marx is loaded with photos and other illustrations of Burle Marx's gardens, many focused on the plants themselves, complete with Latin names. The book, free of a table of contents, has an odd structure, with an English introduction and English-German-Italian text throughout the rest of the book, mainly as captions to the images. There is no index so no way to find particular projects. In effect the book is made for browsing: a voyage through the gardens of Burle Marx -- on the cusp of dramatic changes in his home country.