Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 14, 2024
Catherine Seavitt Nordenson Depositions : Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship Austin: University of Texas Press, 2023. 336 pp. $34.95 (9781477327609)

Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx is well known for his groundbreaking production of tropical gardens and public landscape projects within the history of modern Brazilian architecture. Still, he also had an essential role as an activist for environmental preservation. Catherine Nordenson’s book, Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship, is a crucial contribution as it reveals Burle Marx’s systematic role as a government councilor defending cultural and environmental preservation. While working on emblematic landscape architecture projects and having a good political transit, the architect used his social position to denounce deforestation and threats to the natural environment, most of it in opposition to the government’s developmental orientation. One important detail, however, is that all of this effort took place under an authoritarian regime.

From 1964 to 1985, Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship that violently repressed its political opposition and systemically disrespected human rights. This period saw a boost in the construction industry, underpinned by an ideology of development similar to the one that emerged in the 1930s under the Getúlio Vargas administration and culminating in the late 1950s with the construction of Brasília during Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency. At the same time, the military regime intensified economic growth due to its authoritarian and technocratic nature. Nonetheless, the dictatorship tolerated certain kinds of “soft opposition,” especially from noncommunists. The Federal Council of Culture—Conselho Federal de Cultura (CFC)—was one of the spaces for this noncompliance. This advisory council consisted of renowned representatives of cultural production and cultural elites such as sociologists Gilberto Freyre and Raymundo Faoro, and writers Guimarães Rosa, Ariano Suassuna, and Rachel de Queiroz, who would advise the government on topics in culture and heritage. Nordenson highlights that from 1967 to 1974, Burle Marx was part of the council and used that space to promote natural landscape preservation.

Nordenson takes Burle Marx’s depositions in the CFC as the core documents to structure the book’s historical narrative. The author alternates eighteen depositions—primary documents translated first-hand—with chapters on the architect’s trajectory and his public landscape projects. The choice is commendable and promotes space for the readers to interpret the historical documents themselves; simultaneously, such pieces are informed by the chapter’s historical narrative. Although not focused on the imagery, the book brings outstanding black-and-white photos, maps, and drawings from solid archival research that complement the depositions as a source. The text is divided into six chapters, addressing the topics of culture and politics in Brazil, forest preservation, the baroque city landscape and its preservation, urban public parks, the science of conservation and Botanics, and the relationship to the military regime.

The depositions translated in the book were published at the time in Cultura, Revista Brasileira de Cultura, and Boletim do Conselho Nacional de Cultura. Some of these documents appear in books that brought Burle Marx’s lectures together, but they were never translated or sufficiently contextualized. While there is a vast bibliography on his trajectory, his depositions as a government councilor on topics such as modernism, landscape architecture, and historical, cultural, or environmental preservation were rarely mentioned in Brazilian scholarship. A critical book on the CFC’s role and ambivalence during the regime was written by historian Tatyana Maia, who barely mentions Burle Marx. Besides that, the council is nearly forgotten in architectural historiography. Therefore, Nordenson’s book fills a vital gap in the scholarship and raises fundamental questions that require careful contemplation.

The architectural field in itself has scarcely been historicized and analyzed in its nuances and complexities in the period of the military dictatorship in Brazil. Nordenson’s work is highly relevant in its approach to acknowledging the role of architects in the policy-making debate, going beyond their landscape design. Such an approach moves towards recognizing historical subjects for more than the cultural products they create. Still, it fosters the critical consideration of these subjects’ institutional role, social and political networking potential, and several nuances that enrich the analysis of their design practice.

On the one hand, Burle Marx’s role at the CFC highlights the ambivalences of the regime, which despite its authoritarian structure, allowed some progressive professionals to advise the problematic government. On the other hand, this can be read as a kind of strategic accommodation for both sides. Although Burle Marx was an important representative of a progressive cultural approach present in the design teams of the Ministry of Education and Health headquarters (1937–45), and of Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo landfill project (1961)—enterprises carried along by governments far from being leftist—there is no evidence that he was a communist or anything close to that. Thus, his positions exposed within the CFC  seem not to have been the reason for repression. Such political issues are not addressed in detail by Nordenson, and promising research is yet to be done on this topic. But the ostensive contradictions of an authoritarian regime that had—against its own environmentally destructive orientation—a nascent environmentalist discourse within its councils are thoroughly addressed by the book.

Moreover, Nordenson shows how the environmentalist content in Burle Marx’s ideas comes from a conservationist tradition. The architect’s education in botanics is an essential element of his determination to catalog and preserve Brazilian species. At the same time, another crucial aspect of his general approach to preservation that the book makes clear is the one that comes from Brazil’s institutional history of heritage preservation. The relationship between Burle Marx, the National Heritage Preservation Agency (SPHAN), and Lucio Costa—one of those responsible for framing historical heritage and national identity within that agency—is a central factor in understanding his arguments at the CFC. The conservation of Brazilian species is a way of preserving the country’s history and identity, as it is for the landscape. In almost all depositions, Burle Marx argues for the relevance of natural landscape as a significant cultural trace and heritage. The relationship between identity and modernity is central to Burle Marx’s discourse, as it was for Costa’s.

Among his landscape designs for consecrated landmarks of modern architecture—in collaboration with architects such as Oscar Niemeyer, Afonso Eduardo Reidy Carmen Portinho, and Luis Nunes—Nordenson shows the Flamengo landfill, an iconic landscape project. “The fill,” so-named in the book as a translation of the usual reference in Portuguese, o aterro, was a noteworthy intervention on Rio de Janeiro’s coastline, which redefined the landscape as a cultural fact and object of collective meaning (163). Its curves advancing over Guanabara Bay made a composition with the hills of Pão de Açúcar, establishing a new totality that combined nature, public parks and gardens, and modern architecture, redefining Rio’s skyline through elements destined to become a heritage. In fact, Flamengo Park was listed by SPHAN as a historical landmark right after its construction was ready in 1965. Burle Marx devoted one of the depositions to calling attention to the Flamengo landfill preservation as a public park and an important natural landscape area within the city. The landscape architect’s trajectory evidence how tropical nature was a crucial part of a project of modernity, nation-building, and Brazilhood, and as an object of preservation as well as a fundamental representation of the country’s specificity, identity, and heritage.

In other symbolically charged moments of his work at the CFC,  Burle Marx criticized the impact of large enterprises such as housing developments in Rio de Janeiro near the Horto Florestal Park and hydroelectric projects with heavy implications on river basins (236). Although very critical of the impact of development on the environment, there are few mentions of the roadways being opened by the regime across the forests, such as the Transamazônica, which became a symbol of the dictatorship’s efforts to colonize the Amazon.  Burle Marx went on expeditions to some of these areas suffering from deforestation to collect species in an impulse of preservation and maybe as a kind of indirect protest. In addition, the law itself was a frequent object of his depositions, including the Forest Code and the creation or preservation of National Parks.

Conscious of her position as a North American and US scholar, Nordenson brings the Global South to the forefront of the history of environmental activism with Depositions. Burle Marx’s propositions and efforts reveal a deep entanglement of cultural and ecological preservation and the creation of public landscapes, calling attention to the importance of collective spaces and shared cultural heritage for urban living and planetary health.

Victor Piedade de Prospero
Department of History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism, University of São Paulo