Burle Marx and the Praça Casa Forte

A skit on heritage education at Praça Casa Forte, Recife
A skit on heritage education at Praça Casa Forte, Recife

Back in graduate school, a friend of mine from Brazil introduced me to the landscape architect, Burle Marx (1909-1994). He is internationally known for his work that was uniquely Brazilian, incorporating many folk art elements in his designs. He had a love for plants that were indigenous to Brazil and was one of the first leaders to speak out against the deforestation of the Amazon. From his early practice starting in the 1930s into the Modernist era, he consistently emphasized the importance of ecological systems and conservation. Although I am far from an expert on Burle Marx, I wonder if this had something to do with the fact that his love of landscape began with plants as a child; unlike other landscape architects who focused more on the hardscape elements of design, Burle Marx’ work appears to be much more connected to the earth and living things. (Apparently, many plant varieties have been named for him.)

Until recently, I was not aware that he began his practice here in Recife. In 1934, he created one of his first public gardens, the Praça Casa Forte (Casa Forte Square), in the eponymous neighborhood. He later went on to design many public and private gardens around Brazil and even designed the gardens at the Embassy of Brazil in Washington, DC. I had a chance to see Praça Casa Forte this morning at the farmers market that takes place there every Saturday.

The Municipality of Recife and the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) have been working together to identify and protect six Burle Marx gardens that still exist in Recife, including Praça Case Forte. A few months ago, these gardens were federally protected as heritage areas. The municipality has been engaged in program to help educate people about the importance of these gardens and Burle Marx in general. Evidence for this was readily seen at the farmers market where there were several actors engaged in an educational skit about the square and its importance. I was able to understand about half of the dialog, and I must say it was very entertaining. Clearly, a lot of effort went into the performance.

The family at Praça Casa Forte
The family at Praça Casa Forte

Praça Casa Forte represents heritage that is officially recognized as embodying objective qualities of integrity/authenticity, historical facts, and associations with a well-known designer. As a case study for my research, this official valuation may serve as a useful foil to compare against the values held by the community or a wider range of stakeholders. At this point, I still need to talk with some of the community leaders (with assistance from my colleagues at UFPE) to see if the community itself has an interest and a need to explore ways in which stakeholders value, engage with, and experience the square. A key facet of my research is to make sure that the community has the ability to lead the process of this value identification; my role and the role of UFPE doctoral students who will be helping me is to facilitate this process. This means respecting the way in which the community members define knowledge and express meanings. (In other words, I have to adapt to the way in which the community shares meanings, not the other way around, which is the typical way in which built heritage planning and management occurs.)

Praça Casa Forte looks promising, but I still have other possibilities to explore.

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