In the past, the British haven’t had a lot of time for Modern gardens. There are many reasons for this. Some are related to why we don’t have a lot of time for Modern architecture either, while others are more pragmatic. It’s a climate thing: if you are going to plant a garden of slow-growing trees and shrubs that won’t really start to gel until your grandchildren reach retirement age, well, you had better not go out on a limb with anything too radical.
However, this summer’s batch of British flower and garden exhibitions saw Modern designs creep into the ranks of the prize-winners, which caused furious debate amongst the general public and TV gardening presenters alike. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the general post-Wallpapero trend in the UK towards an appreciation of contemporary art and design; perhaps it has something to do with the exodus of younger professional couples from the big cities, who move to the country but don’t want to buy into the country cottage aesthetic so popular in the 1980s. People who do want an attractive, well-designed, low-maintenance garden in which to spend the brief months of summer must inevitably ditch the mixed borders and clipped lawns of middle England for something more … Modern.
Which is why this is rather a timely moment for Thames and Hudson to have published an English translation of Marta Iris Montero’s book on the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx: Roberto Burle Marx: The Lyrical Landscape (2001). Burle Marx was something of a polymath: in addition to the astonishingly original garden projects for which he is best known, he painted prolifically throughout his life and produced stained glass, mural and architectural designs, as well as being ‘an excellent baritone’ much in demand at parties. In the years leading up to his death in 1994, he devoted himself almost entirely to painting and it is obvious that he had an unusual aesthetic sensibility. His original colour designs for gardens, such as the Plan for the Roof Garden of the Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janeiro (1938), are reminiscent of European abstract painting of the period – organic, dynamic and fluid – but with a very particular ‘New World’ colour palette. While projects such as the mosaic and planting schemes along Copacobana Beach (1970) and at the Largo da Carioca (1981–85) were intended to be flattened out for viewing from an elevated position as well as from on the ground, you can see that Burle Marx had a unique ability to conceive gardens as both plan and sequence of vistas.
This is most evident in his designs for private gardens and small corporate spaces. The flat, abstract beauty of the colour drawings doesn’t prepare you for the surprising shifts in level, scale and texture that abound in the real thing. Cluster plantings form soft abstract shapes, large trees and shrubs are placed singly as anchors in the space of the garden, while ramblers and climbers penetrate into the building itself and hang from its structure. At the same time, geometric expanses of water or tiling are played off against areas of stonework and the varied foliage of predominantly native plants. Ironically, it was during a pre-war trip to the Dahlem Botanical Garden in Berlin that Burle Marx discovered the native flora of Brazil. On his return to South America, he made a conscious effort to collect, cultivate and utilize native species for his garden designs – a hitherto unheard of practice in a country that imported most of its garden plants from abroad.
One of the most interesting aspects of this overview of Burle Marx’ career is the surprising number of commissions for public urban spaces – in particular his projects for Rio de Janeiro and his collaborations with Oscar Niemeyer in Brasilia. This rather puts London – which prides itself on being a ‘green’ city by virtue of statistical acreage – to shame. Burle Marx proved that urban parks and gardens, whatever their scale, are necessary oases in the life of the city, but that there is far more to the concept of a ‘garden’ than a patch of lawn and a few plants.