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Plazas and plants

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Roberto Burle Marx: The Lyrical Landscape By Marta Iris Montero. Thames & Hudson, 2001. 208pp. £29.95

'Paints as you plant, and as you work, Designs': Alexander Pope's eulogy of the formative power of nature has had few more potent vindications than the gardens of Roberto Burle Marx. The plans of his 'paintings made with plants', as Bruno Zevi called them, can seem all-too-literal derivations from the formal language of painters like Miro and Arp, but in perspective they are transformed into magical distillations of the genius loci of their Brazilian settings.

Born in 1909, Burle Marx came with his family to Berlin at the age of 19 in search of help for his eye problems. The city opened his mind to new possibilities. He was excited by the artistic ferment, and by Expressionism especially, but the key discoveries were the liberation of colour in Van Gogh, and the Dahlem Botanical Garden, with its collection of exotic Brazilian plants he had never seen back home.

Returning to Brazil, Burle Marx decided to study architecture in Rio de Janeiro, but Lucio Costa - who was in the throes of modernising the school - persuaded him to pursue the visual arts instead. Costa was soon turning to Burle Marx to design gardens and he became part of that charmed circle of young Modernists who worked with Le Corbusier on the Ministry of Education and Health. His passion for plants was enriched by the discovery of ecology, and in 1949 he acquired a large estate to grow the native materials he wanted to use in gardens - his plant-hunting trips into the botanically uncharted Brazilian interior became legendary, and more than 20 discoveries were eventually named after him.

Burle Marx designed superb public plazas as well as private gardens - most famously the incomparable Copacabana Beach promenade - and in her text, Montero, who collaborated with him for several years, does her best to get at the essence of the Burlesque-Marxist (his own term! ) manner.

Unfortunately she is not helped by the book's two-part structure. The first section began life in the 1970s as a student dissertation, and while the biographical material is valuable, the analysis is pervaded by generalities about the familiar tropes of Modernist art. Burle Marx's freedom of line, studied avoidance of symmetry, and use of endlessly shifting axes were clearly vital to the magical synthesis of his abstract compositions and the natural landscape, but they need exploring in greater depth through a searching analysis of specific works.

The second, documentary section is a valuable record. The project descriptions are mostly factual, and the illustrations - despite being of variable technical quality - are among the best I have seen; the excellent aerial views and Burle Marx's fine sketches are particularly good. It is let down, however, by the crudely coloured redrawn plans which verge on caricatures of Burle Marx's own painted renderings - of which, happily, a good selection are reproduced.

With the astonishing early works of Oscar Niemeyer, Burle Marx's gardens remain, arguably, Brazil's major contribution to the adventure of Modern art.

Despite its shortcomings, this book is a useful and welcome new account of a major body of work.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University

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