Translating Burle Marx

Isadora Milanez

Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes under Dictatorship. University of Texas, 336 pp., $45.00

Military dictatorship, popular culture suggests, is gray, cold, and orderly. Its abuses of power take place on well-paved roads in uniformly dense cities containing only right angles. Its grocery stores have only beige foods, and its schoolchildren sing songs in high-pitched horror-movie unison. Its marching policemen all lift their knees to the same height. Gardens, parks, backyards, and topiary structures, one would imagine, are low on the state’s priority list.

Not so in dictatorial Brazil, where prominent landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx spent the thirties to the sixties designing tableaux that were part tropical paradise, part modernist utopia. His designs draw out striking contrasts between the natural and built environment by juxtaposing lanky palm trees with refined azulejo mosaics, or graceful constructed waterways with desert flora. His Parque do Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro looks at once like a series of amoebas and a collection of flying discs carving clean lines into the bushy green landscape. Whimsical though they may be, his designs also represent an arm of the Brazilian dictatorial state: Burle Marx served in the Federal Council of Culture during the country’s second dictatorship, and many of his works were commissioned by top state officials.

Between 1967 and 1974, Burle Marx delivered a series of position pieces to the Federal Council of Culture from his position as one of the council’s appointees. Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, a landscape architect and associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York,  provides original translations and context for the writings of Burle Marx in Depositions: Roberto Burle Marx and Public Landscapes Under Dictatorship (2018). Though readers might come into Depositions familiar with the political implications of urban planning or architecture, Seavitt Nordenson demonstrates that in Brazil during the 1960s, even landscape architecture was political. The book’s introduction offers the uninitiated reader a clear introduction to the key forces in Brazilian politics of the time: the 1964 coup that resulted in a military dictatorship, the so-called Brazilian economic miracle of the seventies that urbanized the country, and the national desire for modernization and progress that fueled massive investment in infrastructure and development. It was during this time that Burle Marx gave his depositions on a variety of aesthetic and political issues, from advocacy for national park preservation to which architectural flourishes were the ugliest (“sculptures of heroes,” “poorly pruned trees”). Despite Burle Marx’s position within a brutally repressive state regime, the depositions appeal to emotions, common sense and the law to defy the dictatorship’s stance on development and endorse the preservation of Brazil’s flora and fauna.

Seavitt Nordenson fills her text with photographs, renderings and blueprints of Burle Marx’s work that ask us to consider the connection between his visual artistry and textual advocacy. Devoid of people, the landscapes could just as easily be mockups, yet they are familiar to those who have walked through Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte or São Paulo. Oh, so that was Burle Marx’s too? With kaleidoscopic glasses, I revisit my quotidian familiarity with these environments in light of Burle Marx’s vision for them as planned and political. In their physical materiality, the landscapes are incontrovertible testaments to the fact that beyond these orations, something was built. Yet there is something outside the gardens’ physicality that haunts. As my mind’s eye revisits the shimmering, transforming views of the Parque do Flamengo, I wonder whether their aesthetics, and indeed their place in my life, can be separated from the project of their inception. Especially in today’s political climate, in which political trials explode months before a national election, the gardens are uncomfortable reminders of the dictatorial state.

Through their juxtapositions with the text and with each other, Seavitt Nordenson’s curatorial choices in Depositions are a collage in their own right. The interplay between artistic intent and viewer interpretation gives the volume layers—the more it is picked up, leafed through, and put down again, the more it reveals meaning. Yet her critical commentary on the broader visual culture of Brazil during the sixties is often lacking. Offering images of political events, Brazilian heads of state, and works by other artists, she remarks that the images “reveal what is not said,” but refrains from providing her own commentary about what is said, or what she might say. She chooses to depict Getúlio Vargas, the fourteenth president of Brazil, grinning wildly atop a horse, bearing closer resemblance to a child on a show pony than a head of state in an equestrian pose. Was this Seavitt Nordenson’s way of conveying derision for the president-turned-dictator? Or was the image simply comical, a tickling gem of the archive she hoped would see the light of day? Images like these are as intriguing as they are puzzling.

As a work of translation, Depositions delivers. Seavitt Nordenson is an excellent translator: technical terms, colloquial language, and idioms flow without a hitch. She is also discriminating, careful to translate necessary words while not overburdening us with excessive vocabulary. Her work as a translator is particularly vital because so few of Burle Marx’s depositions have been translated into English, and much of the supplementary material she draws upon is only available in Portuguese. More importantly, the book helps us reflect on the ideological opportunities of translation. Seavitt Nordenson’s desire for readers to “take Burle Marx at his word” reveals the importance of bringing new angles of engagement to our American-centered critique. For example, she points out that Burle Marx’s insistence on the compatibility between economic development and ecological preservation cannot be derived from the two American schools of natural preservation exemplified by John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Burle Marx’s perspective is something new entirely, and we would be wise to investigate the “union of nature and nationhood” he exemplifies. By undertaking the translation project that is Depositions, Seavitt Nordenson injects new life into the English-language discourse on landscape architecture and on modernism’s reverberations across the world.

Yet Depositions is far from a mere translation of Burle Marx’s transcribed orations. Seavitt Nordenson provides a critical and historical framework with which to interpret his depositions. Precisely because so little of this work has been translated, its content is largely unfamiliar to non-Portuguese-speaking audiences. The choices Seavitt Nordenson makes to contextualize the depositions thus have a profound role in shaping how the reader will view Burle Marx’s work and the history of Brazilian state-sponsored architecture more broadly. In that light, great responsibility rests on Seavitt Nordenson ’s shoulders, and at times she does not carry through.

One of Seavitt Nordenson’s great strengths is her clarity in conveying the history of Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. Her account combines the succinctness of a crash-course textbook with the allure of walking through a gallery of Brazil’s notable moments. The nagging question that remains, however, is whether the story of the great men of the dictatorship was the right one to tell. It is certainly critical to understanding Burle Marx’s oeuvre that we consider its historical context and his participation in the project of national progress, even if his work aimed to criticize it from within. Seavitt Nordenson sells us on the idea that landscape architecture is political insofar as it was done for the great political movers and shakers of Brazil. Yet Seavitt Nordenson’s historical sketch is the cookie cutter one: she tells us of the modernist artists like Mário de Andrade and Anita Malfatti, the heads of state like Vargas, and all the pertinent elites with which Brazilian schools familiarize their students. She is often concerned with high art and how Burle Marx fits within the small world that was in constant conversation with European artists and thinkers like Le Corbusier. She also emphasizes the precedent for Burle Marx’s work in the colonial gardens of the Portuguese court, highlighting the Europe-Brazil connection as though it were natural and inevitable. American scholars tend to believe that if you tell the elite’s story of the Global South, you get the story right—Seavitt Nordenson falls squarely into this trap. Fixated on the stories that Brazilians in power already tell, she misses the opportunity to elaborate on another way in which landscape architecture is political: the way it moves and shapes the non-elites.

In some moments, this angle emerges. Seavitt Nordenson remarks that the plan for the zoo botanical garden in Brasília would have displaced people in Candangolândia, a settlement for workers brought in to build the city. She also points out Burle Marx’s grappling with how his landscapes might bulldoze over favelas. Yet Seavitt Nordenson fails to mention that the candangos after whom Candangolândia is named were primarily black and brown, usually the poorest residents of the adjacent states willing to do itinerant work for the wealthy bureaucrats who envisioned a utopic city. Upon the completion of Brazil’s capital, the candangos were expected either to return to their former homes or to live in satellite cities far from the main metropolis. In short, the candangos were envisioned from the start as a disposable labor force that would not participate in the project their labor helped create. Seavitt Nordenson acknowledges this tension in Burle Marx’s work, noting that he was more concerned with advancing the “culture of the environment” than advocating for “individual human rights.” Indeed, she notes that his decision to work for the military regime was “ethically fraught,” but she does not dive into what these ethics entail. As readers, we miss the opportunity to consider how the utopia of the ecologically-minded elite affected the candangos, because the candangos’ history and context do not rank high enough on the list of Seavitt Nordenson’s concerns. Rather than rewriting the candangos’ history to accompany Burle Marx’s work, Seavitt Nordenson replicates the stories of power Brazilians already know so that English-speaking audiences can participate in its reproduction.

Oddly, in a book dedicated to the designs of Burle Marx, we don’t get to know much at all about Burle Marx the person. By piecing together details, we determine that Burle Marx was safe in his status within Brazil’s white intelligentsia. Seavitt Nordenson reveals this in subtle ways, like when she notes that he developed close ties to people with political power early in his career. Yet without a deep investigation of Burle Marx’s background, her cross-examination of his work—and its political implications—seems lacking. Beyond her gloss on Burle Marx’s fraught complicity with the dictatorship, Seavitt Nordenson avoids holding Burle Marx accountable for how his utopic visions could undermine the interests of common people. Burle Marx seems to spend all of his time thinking about the distribution of flora and no time thinking about the distribution of people, particularly indigenous people, who inhabit it. If Burle Marx did not consider them, Seavitt Nordenson should have. What motivated Burle Marx? Should we read his ecological depositions as resistance against the military regime, as Seavitt Nordenson suggests, if he hardly challenged its oppression? Were there moments of uncertainty, guilt, betrayal? An increased emphasis on Burle Marx’s biography and the effect of his landscapes on the non-elites might have brought us to the final way in which landscape architecture is political: it is political only insofar as it is personal.