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)




The focus of this paper has been deliberately narrow; it has examined Geoffrey Jellicoe’s ideas far more closely than it has examined the body of his design work. Many would judge Jellicoe to be an outstanding designer, but my contention is simply that being an outstanding designer does not make him an outstanding philosopher. I am willing to concede that it is rather harsh to judge theories presented in talks and articles written over a lifetime as if they were rigorously argued in a journal of philosophical aestehtics. Nevertheless, it should be said that Jellicoe’s ideas are seriously flawed. In particular he is wrong to make the communication of subconscious contents a necessary condition for creating works of art. Nor can such communication be regarded as supplying a sufficient condition.

Jellicoe’s ideas are wrong, but they are not pernicious. They are unlikely to cause any harm in the world, and have served him well enough in his own art. Seen as a personal philosophy rather than a general theory in philosophical aesthetics, they have value. It is naive to expect great artists, whether they be composers, poets or landscape architects, to be profound or consistent thinkers.

Second, though Jellicoe’s theories do not make complete sense, and in some respects are plainly wrong, he is surely right to maintain that landscape architecture can produce works of art. My purpose in this paper has not been to evaluate Jellicoe’s landscape designs, butI would notdisagree with the view that many ofhis own designs would count asart.

Third, we will never find a single criterion against which to judge those things that aspire to be works of art, and we are mistaken to look for one. It will probably benefit landscape architecture if at least some of its products are considered to merit the appellation “work of art”. To this extent its status is more than an academic question. There is not, however, one right or guaranteed way of producing such work. Some will see that as a problem, others as a liberation. Which schemes are works of art, which are not, and which lie on the borderline, will always remain matters of judgement and debate.

Ian Thompson, Can a Landscape be a Work of Art?: an examination of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s theory of aesthetics (1995)

Sir Geoffrey Allan Jellicoe, Sutton Place Gardens (1983)


Arts in advance

At all times the arts of painting and sculpture have been in advance of that of architecture. The reason for this is simple; architecture, mother of the arts though she may be, is cumbersome. Buildings must serve a purpose, and that purpose is usually traditional; they are made of involved and complex materials; they pass through many hands during the long period from the creation of the idea to completion; and upon the completion they cannot be put under glass and are subject to the whims of the owner. If this appraisal applies to architecture, it applies still more to landscape design.

Geoffrey Alan Jellicoe, Landscape from Art (1961) 


Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970)