The Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx was a modern day Renaissance man – painter, jeweller, poet, musician, sculptor, environmentalist, cook, set designer, plant hunter, landscape architect.
Of course, it is those last two activities which draw me to him. He was one of the finest modernist landscape designers, known for the scale and bravura of his designs, and for his championing of native Brazilian flora (which had been previously spurned as brush and scrub in comparison to the supposedly superior plants of Europe). Burle Marx, who died in 1994 aged 84, was also a master at creating fluid spaces that merged with buildings designed by Oscar Neimeyer and other modernist architects.
Currently there is a slightly disappointing exhibition of his work called Roberto Burle Marx, la Permanence de l’Instable at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.
The exhibition is at its best when it shows off Burle Marx’s drawings and plans: there are wonderful colourful diagrams and confident pencil sketches, some sinuous and organic, a little like a Picasso drawing; others are blocky and angular, reminding me of the compositions of Mondrian. You can trace the development of Burle Marx’s style, from early, surprisingly traditional Beaux Arts designs through to the great bravura sweep of the Copacabana and the Aterro do Flamengo. But in grouping his work into themes – early work, monumentality, public places, private residences, etc – the exhibition loses the essential links between individual plans and finished landscapes, which are separately displayed through photographs and videos.
One of my teachers at Harvard was sniffy about Burle Marx’s work, seeing it as rather two dimensional, like a painting laid on the ground, and another scholar has argued that even his sinuous designs paid scant regard to the topographical curves of their sites. But the best of his gardens were wonderfully lush, dramatically modernist creations. It is a shame that some of the best known do not feature in the exhibition.
Given his championing of exotic vegetation, it is not surprising that most of Burle Marx’s work is found in South America. But the exhibition includes two plans he produced for sites here in Paris. One, a terrace for the Pompidou Centre, was never installed.
The other is a delightful series of six small sunken patios produced in 1963 for the headquarters of UNESCO. They are still there apparently, and recently refurbished – I shall have to go and take a look.
The exhibition runs until 24 July.