Social Agenda

It is in his social agenda that Burle Marx’s lectures are perhaps most surprising. In several lectures Burle Marx tells us that he is motivated by people, by the collective, and by society. While this is very much consistent with his role as an activist, the general perception of Burle Marx’s landscape architecture was that he did not care about the client or user, but did his own thing. Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe put it bluntly, “You see, what he does is he will walk onto a site and do the swishing and do these lovely things,  mind it will be his thing, it will be what he wants to have there and very nice worthwhile it is too.” Even Haruyoshi Ono would confirm this approach:  that Burle Marx did what he himself wanted, but that over time he began to consider the user more carefully. “In the beginning before I started to work with Roberto, he just said ‘I think I want this garden’ and made it. But then I started to work with him and tried to, more or less, open his mind and said ‘you have to listen to the client because the garden is for the client.’ Then he became more open for the client.”
In Finding a Garden Style to Meet Contemporary Needs, Burle Marx tells us that, “a work of art cannot be, I think, the result of a haphazard solution.” He applied what he termed a series of principles-not formulas-to his projects. He claims in Concepts in Landscape Composition, to have ‘never deliberately sought originality as an aim.” Having been initially trained as a painter -who works alone- Burle Marx brought the attitude of the “great maestro” to his landscape architecture, even though, through his firm, he provided full-service design, from concept to maintenance.  Despite -or indeed because of- his concern for the users, and their quality of life and their needs, he believed very much in the agency of design.  In Gardens and Ecology he tells us, “The social mission of the landscape architect has a pedagogical side of communicating to the masses a feeling of esteem and comprehension of the values of nature through his presentation of it in parks and gardens.” Burle Marx saw the potential of design to educate on the environment, in addition to the ability of changing the quality of lives through his landscape architecture. Burle Marx’s lectures show the social intentions of his artistry.

Gareth Doherty, On Burle Marx and his Lectures (2018)


Roberto Burle-Marx, Copacabana Promenade (1970)




We should be careful of green. Greenwashing does not help anyone. Green intentions are all very good, but a lot of follow-through and care is required to get to a green result in both senses of the word: color and sustainability. Even the best of intentions can go in all sorts of ungreen directions if someone’s asleep at the wheel. For instance, much of the paper and plastic packaging on green products is contaminated through the dyeing process. This surely is a metaphor for the highly irrigated and highly chemicalized green spaces in our cities, the worst of which are “sterile, monocultural, soaked in poison,” as the political ecologist Paul Robbins puts it. Despite, or perhaps because of, its economic, political, social, and cultural importance, green becomes a huge drain on natural resources, with cities like Manama using over half their water resources on the irrigation of greenery.

The paradox of green environmentalism is not restricted to arid beige environments such as Bahrain and Dubai. Indeed, Rem Koolhaas, who is not especially known for his environmental credentials, remarked, “Embarrassingly, we have been equating responsibility with literal greening.” William McDonough and Michael Braungart have chronicled
another form of green desert, the American lawn: “The average lawn is an interesting beast: people plant it, then douse it with artificial fertilizers and dangerous pesticides to make it grow and to keep it uniform-all so that they can hack and mow what they encouraged to grow. And woe to the small flower that rears its head!” Americans allegedly spend more money on watering lawns every year than they do on their federal tax returns. In an essay on public space in Cairo, Vincent Battesti says that green spaces “promote public frenzy.” He argues that the limited green space in Cairo has become a magnet for citizens during holidays and weekends. The draw of green is almost universal, although that attraction may be particular and culturally bound.

Gareth Doherty, Paradoxes of Green (2017)

Gilles Brusset, L’enfance du pli (2017)