In my introductory post on landscape design, I mentioned that Roberto Burle Marx was my inspiration for studying the subject. In the following piece I tell about the day I spent with Roberto in 1980, along with some of his personal history and a bit of background about his country place, or sitio as they call it in Brazil, outside Rio de Janeiro.
My friends Erica Valladares and her husband Clarival had graciously invited me to stay with them in Rio, and they were considering various sights to show me. “Let’s go see Roberto!” Erica said, suggesting that we visit the eminent artist, architect, landscape designer, and botanist Roberto Burle Marx at his place in the country. Clarival had been intending for some time to photograph the colonial chapel on the property for a book he was writing. It was a sunny Sunday morning in early fall, and the adventure sounded exciting, but I had no idea what an amazing and unforgettable experience was in store for me. We went by car, riding along the shore for almost an hour, the ocean on one side and hills lush with tropical vegetation on the other.
I was told that Roberto had purchased his small colonial estate in the hills at the edge of a mangrove ecosystem near Guaratiba, west of Rio, some 30 years earlier. It was located just off a road first traveled by Portuguese settlers. One of the early owners in the 1600s had named it “Santo Antonio da Bica,” and this saint was commemorated in a small Benedictine chapel that was still standing when Roberto bought the place. The main house, however, had been largely destroyed. He took on the challenge of building his home and restoring the chapel with great reverence, doing much of the work with his own hands. For the next 24 years, the sitio was to be his weekend occupation while he continued to reside and maintain his offices in Rio. In 1973 he moved there and made it his home.
A cheerful stocky white-haired man, Roberto greeted us effusively when we arrived. He was enthusiastic about everything. First he wanted to show us what he was cooking. The meal smelled delicious. It was simmering in enormous pots. No servants were in sight. He appeared to be doing everything himself, with boundless energy. Next, he took us to see his greenhouses and showed us his latest botanical projects. His words tumbled out one on top of the next. While Clarival and Erica set up their gear to photograph the chapel, Roberto took me around to see more of his amazing paradise, as if he had nothing else to do. I believe he was especially kind to me because he had known my husband Sylvio, who had died the year before.
While the sitio didn’t give a hint of the grand public spaces Roberto has designed throughout the world, it was a perfect showcase of his more intimate accomplishments. At the time he purchased the property, he was just beginning to get into landscape design. He became interested in plants as a young man studying in Germany, where his family had roots. (His father was from Trier and was a distant relative of Karl Marx, whose shared DNA could be seen in Roberto’s face.) When the young Roberto visited a botanical museum in Germany, he was struck by an exotic collection of Brazilian plants. His first thought was that these plants should be being valued and used in gardens in their native setting. At the time, gardens in Brazil were formal and tended to invoke styles dating back to the Empire; the plants were mainly species imported from Europe. On returning to Brazil, Roberto continued to study art under the famous Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari, and his mentor in architecture was his childhood friend Lúcio Costa (my husband’s mentor as well). But botany increasingly became a passion.
His main reason for acquiring the 100-acre sitio was to have room to collect and organize native Brazilian plants, especially from the area around Rio: bromeliads, palms, giant ferns, and other tropicals. He arranged them in groups not only according to their cultivation needs but also to create designs. His collection eventually grew to over 3,500 species, including examples from Asia and Africa as well as Brazil. As time passed, he became the first to identify several Brazilian species himself. About 30 plants have been named for him. On the day of my visit, he showed us folios of original gouache illustrations by the British botanical artist Margaret Mee, many of them plants that bore his name.
It was a warm day with a gentle breeze coming up the hill from the ocean. Guests began to arrive, and the house, with doors opening onto the wide veranda, began to come alive with excited conversations. We filled our plates from the buffet and settled down. It was like a turn-of-the-century European salon, with people chatting in small groups, discussing deep topics in several different languages. Roberto himself was a polyglot and transitioned smoothly from group to group, joining them in Portuguese, German, English, or French.
After lunch, he invited me to explore the rest of the house. I saw family photographs and works by prominent artists. There were also indigenous artifacts, and of course his own paintings and sculptures, as well as fascinating pieces of jewelry that he had designed. I felt caught up in his swirls and waves and sinuous repeating lines, which were everywhere – in his watercolors, oils, and pen-and-ink drawings, in his jewelry and sculptures, and, finally, echoed in the walkways around the house and its surrounding gardens. I told Erica how excited I was about his work, and she whispered confidentially: “You might be able to buy something to take home with you.”
The next thing I knew, Roberto was beckoning me to join him in his studio at the back, where he had a number of paintings on display. I told him I couldn’t afford to buy a painting, but I wondered if he had any drawings to sell. He pulled out a sheaf of large pen-and-ink abstracts on rough handmade paper and showed them to me one by one, telling me a little about each. One of them held a special attraction, and I asked if I could buy it. We closed the deal. He signed it and went to look for materials to pack it so I could take it home on the plane.I felt very proud to be carrying home a souvenir of this wonderful experience – to own a piece of it for the rest of my life.
By that time people were calling for him to come and play the piano. For the rest of the afternoon this many-talented genius entertained us with a classical concert.
I think what impressed me most was that he was constantly on the move, talking at the same time, and he appeared to do everything himself. He was good at everything he did and never stopped “doing.” He was affable and kind, and he was enthusiastic about everything he could take in with his senses.
Roberto died in 1994 at the age of 85. The sitio is now a national monument, supported by a foundation and donations from visiting tourists. The website (in Portuguese) is at http://sitioburlemarx.blogspot.com/. There is a very short BBC video at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/real_cities/8236903.stm and a photomontage at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9EvUqB1C0I. A search for [“Burle Marx” + sitio] will reveal many more photos and information in English on visiting the property.