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Roberto Burle Marx transformed my understanding of urban landscapes, says Brian Vermeulen


In 2000, my approach to architecture changed as a result of two unrelated choices: to better understand botany, I enrolled to study General Horticulture at RHS Wisley, and I visited Brazil to give a lecture at the British Council in São Paulo. On a brief detour to Rio I arrived at Santos Dumont Airport and was immediately captivated by a forecourt landscape of organic-shaped planting beds and ponds, sculptural stones, curved concrete benches, and mature fig and palm trees. My journey from the airport then took me past Flamengo Park and Copacabana Beach – all three landscapes, appearing to merge into the others.

I was in Rio to see the work of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, but had stumbled upon an inspirational modern landscape unlike any other. My host told me that the landscape architect was Roberto Burle Marx – of whom I had heard, but knew little – and that he had died 16 years earlier. I bought the only English language Burle Marx book I could find in Rio.

A Burle Marx landscape is constantly transforming through seasons, alive with moving grasses, insect sounds and birdsong.”

These landscapes on Guanabara Bay were created over a period of 32 years, starting with the airport in 1938 and ending with Copacabana Promenade which, like Flamengo Park, was created partly to solve major traffic congestion. To create space, land was reclaimed from the sea (partially by using arisings from a levelled hill, Morro Santo Antonio) leaving formerly beach-front properties hundreds of metres from the sea. Between the highway and the new artificial beach, Burle Marx introduced pavements covered in ‘waves’ of black and white Portuguese mosaic, and trees and plants suited to coastal conditions. Seafront promenades and boulevards are often a blight on the city, but this landscape is inspired, and gives Rio a unique identity.

After Guanabara Bay I visited two other significant Burle Marx landscapes in Rio, Casa das Canoas (with Niemeyer) and the Ministry of Education and Health (with Costa, Le Corbusier and Niemeyer). In each, landscape is integral with the architecture.


Top: Burle Marx plan for Praça Senador Salgado Filho at Aeroporto Santos Dumont, Rio de Janeiro
Above: Brian Vermeulen’s own house, under construction in Kenya

When Burle Marx was 21 (in 1930) he started collecting Brazilian plant specimens. In the 1930s and 1940s many Brazilian landscapes were designed by Europeans using imported plant species. Burle Marx was visionary and ahead of his time. He was inspired by and promoted indigenous plant species, and understood animal and insect interaction with these plants, and the climate and geology in which they flourish. Using predominantly indigenous species that he has cultivated, Burle Marx painted and sculpted the landscape, adding paving, water and sculpture to this composition. A Burle Marx landscape is constantly transforming through seasons, alive with moving grasses, insect sounds and birdsong.

At 60 years old I am enthusiastic about a new chapter in my own life, for which my ‘discovery’ of Burle Marx is partly responsible. In 2002 I bought an acre of sisal plantation on a creek off the Kenya coast. I have almost completed building myself a house there and I am slowly propagating native plant species to re-establish lost coastal forest.

All my childhood homes in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) were smallholdings surrounded by African bush, where I wandered alone collecting plants – mainly aloes – that I attempted to cultivate. (Their descendants still live between my interior and exterior balcony in London). I was however unaware that my fascination with plants couldhave any significant interaction with my architectural practice. I wish I had known about Burle Marx as a teenager.