An ode to Brazilian garden design pioneer Roberto Burle Marx

The Sunder Nursery in Delhi currently houses a unique juxtaposition, with photographs of Brazilian landscapes framed by Mughal-style gardens at the Unesco World Heritage site.

In one of the images taken by renowned architectural photographer Leonardo Finotti, palm-lined sidewalks unfurl in a winding design to mimic the waves of nearby Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. In another photograph, pockets of greenery grow from geometric modernist patterns at Banco Safra in São Paulo. These images are part of a photographic essay by Finotti depicting Brazilian designer Roberto Burle Marx’s most iconic garden designs, created in the 1930s-90s.

“He was a painter and also designed tapestries, costumes and jewelry. But Roberto Burle Marx – a true Renaissance man, visionary and artist – is best known today for his pioneering landscape designs,” noted a 2016 article in vogue which marked his retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York.

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Burle Marx, who died in 1994, was the first in the country to move away from landscape traditions inspired by European aesthetics to create a true Brazilian language. He integrated architecture into the landscape and used tropical plants – considered wild and disorderly, notable only for their anthropological value – to instill pride in local vegetation. Burle Marx, who visited India in the 1970s, was indeed so interested in the environment and biodiversity that he led multiple expeditions, in the Pantanal and the Amazon for example, and discovered several new species.

The exhibition to celebrate his legacy is being held as part of the “Building Brazil: 200 Years of Independence” celebrations in Delhi. “We wanted to play on the contrasts between his creations and Sunder Nursery,” explains André Aranha Corrêa do Lago, Brazilian Ambassador to India.

The show comes at just the right time, since outdoor spaces have grown in prominence during the pandemic. Burle Marx, of course, conceived of gardens as social spaces in the 1930s. “He propagated the idea of ​​public spaces as democratic and safe spaces,” do Lago explains.

Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro have followed much the same urbanization trajectory as Indian metros like Delhi, with the percentage of green public spaces decreasing over the decades. Recognizing this, Burle Marx tried to create green interventions, converting highways into public spaces where people could stroll and enjoy nature. “How do you make sure that overflights don’t divide cities?” If you have to build a highway or an overpass, how do you turn it into a useful and inclusive public space for everyone? He asked questions like these,” do Lago explains.

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Visitors to Sunder Nursery won’t feel like they’re seeing an alien visual vocabulary. Because it has the same modernist roots as those of Charles Correa and Raj Rewal, with an emphasis on social spaces. As Lago says, the work of Burle Marx, like the work of these Indian architects, is extremely symbolic of the Brazilian nation-building process. “He went beyond European cultural models. He integrates architecture into the landscape, freeing himself from cultural colonization. In the 20th century, countries like ours sought an identity through urban planning, but very few architects achieved it through design. Burle Marx stands out in this context,” he says. In 2021, his own farm and garden near Rio de Janeiro was inscribed on the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites.

When Burle Marx visited India, he commissioned hundreds of plants and incorporated them into many of his designs in Brazil, such as Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro, the largest public park in the world. And some of the species he discovered during his expeditions, such as Philodendron Burle Marx and Calathea Burle Marx, can be found in Indian nurseries today.

It is therefore quite natural that an exhibition of his works should take place in India, the country that inspired him. “Leonardo Finotti took photos of his work for an exhibition in Paris. His aerial views add an interesting dimension to Burle Marx’s practice. Before him, none of the gardens were designed to be seen from the sky, as there were no towers in the cities. However, he created landscapes in such a way that they also had a great view from the top,” do Lago explains.

Burle Marx at Delhi’s Sunder Nursery, a photographic essay by Leonardo Finotti, is on view until April 18.

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