Roberto Burle Marx is well known for his innovative, abstract, tropical modernist landscape designs, and for his advocacy in protecting Brazil's natural landscapes and exotic flora. His first commission, completed in 1932 with the architects Gregori Warchavchik and Lúcio Costa, marked the beginning of his many collaborations with Costa and, later, Oscar Niemeyer. Burle Marx's designs are widely admired and have influenced many subsequent landscape designers around the world. His work has been celebrated in numerous exhibitions, including recent shows at the Museum of Brazilian Sculpture in São Paulo and the Jewish Museum in New York. Catherine Seavitt Nordenson's Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship interrogates Burle Marx's legacy, exploring the nuances of his role as a designer, conservationist, and public figure working under Brazil's dictatorial military government, which lasted from 1964 until 1985.
Nordenson analyzes eighteen position papers, or depositions, that Burle Marx presented and published from 1967 to 1974 while serving on the advisory board of the Ministry of Education and Culture and as a member of the Federal Council of Culture. Addressing issues of land conservation and the ecological devastation of Brazilian landscapes, Burle Marx generally opposed the government's strategy for national development. Nordenson provides a thorough analysis of his papers, using them to examine the often-contradictory historical, political, and social circumstances of Brazilian life during the repressive anos de chumbo (years of lead)—the regime's most brutal period but also an era of unprecedented economic growth, one remembered by many as the milagre economico, or economic miracle. Even as intellectual and creative communities were persecuted or fled the country, Burle Marx voluntarily collaborated with the dictatorship as a cultural adviser, demonstrating both his hope for change and his consent to repressive rule.
Burle Marx's situation prompts Nordenson to reflect on the frequently complex and conflicted positions of design professionals working under dictatorial regimes, and to consider how aesthetics can blind us to the troubling circumstances underlying many prominent modernist landscapes and buildings.1 She reminds us that Niemeyer, having left Brazil in these years because of his Communist Party affiliation, nonetheless returned frequently to manage his ongoing work at the new capital city of Brasília. Burle Marx also produced several projects there for the military government, including landscapes for the Ministry of Foreign Relations (1965), the Ministry of the Army (1970), and the National Accounts Tribunal (1973). He owed his appointment to the Federal Council of Culture, Nordenson explains, to alliances with some of the most powerful figures in Brazilian politics. He and Niemeyer were hardly alone in their collaborations with the dictatorship. Artists and intellectuals such as Gilberto Freyre, João Guimarães Rosa, and Rachel de Queiroz were among the list of those walking fine lines and devising ways of working with the regime to realize their projects while voicing their controversial and even dangerous criticisms.
Nordenson's is the first publication to translate Burle Marx's deposition papers into English, but some of the content of these official reports has previously been featured in other publications. In 2004, José Tabacow, an associate at Burle Marx's studio from 1965 to 1982, published several of the architect's conference presentations, aiming to clarify his conceptual and philosophical approaches and his design intentions.2 Tabacow's book included essays from Burle Marx's period with the council but also others written both before and after his time under the regime. Produced at Burle Marx's request, Tabacow's anthology was a strategic and comparatively self-serving effort, one that selectively represented Burle Marx's work, justified his sometimes-ambivalent intellectual positions, and carefully framed the reception of his designs by contemporary audiences and clients.
Nordenson argues that Burle Marx was a pivotal character in Brazil's history and cultural evolution, and in making this case she looks back across the longue durée of the nation's history, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Depositions includes more than 180 photos, maps, and other images, such as technical drawings rescaled by the author. Beyond illustrating individual projects and periods, this visual material plays a crucial role in the book's narrative and argumentation. As Nordenson feels compelled to remind her readers, these images are intended to provoke reflection and provide evidence in support of her analyses. Unlike so many other image-rich publications of Burle Marx's highly photogenic work, Nordenson's is a critical history, not a mere coffee-table book or visual resource for aspiring landscape designers.
The book's organization reflects the author's historically and politically contextualized analytical intentions. Beginning with an introductory chapter outlining her aims, Nordenson extensively surveys and contextualizes Burle Marx's public landscape projects through a series of six thematic clusters; only then does she turn to the individual papers that are her central focus. She acknowledges her position as a North American scholar and landscape architect who lived and worked in Brazil for several years, and she reflects on the challenges presented by her topic. Among these was the need to translate speeches that originally included both locutionary and illocutionary elements compelling Nordenson's broader contextualization efforts. While she sees the book's historical overview as part of her broader argument, Nordenson presents the papers as they were written and spoken, thus giving readers room to draw their own conclusions about Burle Marx's words and the intentions underlying them.
Nordenson's book opens new perspectives on Burle Marx's work, revealing facets of his celebrated projects and legacy that too often go unspoken. Its framework reflects the author's own perspective on Brazil's military dictatorship, which determines her readings of this period in the architect's life. Nordenson recognizes and embraces the ambivalence and ambiguities of the period, exposing the complexities faced by architects and intellectuals and their publics, while leaving space for readers' own deliberations and interpretations. This seminal book will enable greater understanding not only of Burle Marx's position as a designer operating under dictatorial conditions but also of the convoluted circumstances underlying Brazil's modern architectural history.