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An ode to the Brazilian garden design pioneer, Roberto Burle Marx

Sunder Nursery plays host to an exhibition of landscape designs by  Brazilian Modernist Roberto Burle Marx as part of “Building Brazil: 200 Years of Independence” celebrations in Delhi

Banco Safra, São Paulo, photograph by Leonardo Finotti.
Banco Safra, São Paulo, photograph by Leonardo Finotti.

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Sunder Nursery in Delhi is currently home to a unique juxtaposition, with photographs of Brazilian landscape designs framed against Mughal-style gardens at the Unesco World Heritage site.

In one of the images taken by leading architectural photographer Leonardo Finotti, pavements, lined with palm trees, unfurl in a meandering design to mimic the waves of the adjoining Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. In another photograph, pockets of greenery grow out of geometric modernist designs at the 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 from the 1930s-90s.

“He was a painter and designed tapestries, costumes, and jewellery as well. But Roberto Burle Marx—a true Renaissance man, visionary and artist—is most remembered today for his pioneering landscape designs,” noted a 2016 article in Vogue that marked his retrospective at New York’s Jewish Museum.

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

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

The show comes at an opportune time, since outdoor spaces have gained importance during the pandemic. Burle Marx, of course, was designing gardens as social spaces back in the 1930s. “He propagated the idea of public spaces as democratic and safe spaces,” says do Lago.

Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro have followed nearly the same trajectory of urbanisation as Indian metros like Delhi, with the percentage of green public spaces decreasing with each passing decade. Recognising this, Burle Marx tried to create green interventions, converting highways into public spaces where people could walk and enjoy nature. “How do you ensure that flyovers don’t divide cities? If you have to build a highway or a flyover, how do you transform it into a useful public space which is inclusive for all? He asked questions such as these,” says do Lago.

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Visitors to Sunder Nursery will not feel they are viewing an alien visual vocabulary. For it has the same modernist roots as that of Charles Correa and Raj Rewal, with the focus on social spaces. As do Lago puts it, Burle Marx’s work, just like the work of these Indian architects, is hugely symbolic of Brazil’s nation-building process. “He went beyond the European cultural models. He integrated architecture with landscape, breaking free from cultural colonisation. In the 20th century, countries such as ours were looking for identity through urbanism but very few architects were able to achieve that through designs. Burle Marx stands out in this context,” he says. In 2021, his own farmhouse and garden near Rio de Janeiro was included in the list of Unesco World Heritage sites.

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

So it is only apt that an exhibition about his works be held in India, a 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 a way that they offer a stunning view from the top as well,” says do Lago.

Burle Marx at Delhi’s Sunder Nursery, a photographic essay by Leonardo Finotti, can be viewed till 18 April.

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