Making House Calls in Rio, Part 2

Rio de Janeiro house with pool

Photo © Michael Sommers.

The house I wrote about in my previous post was a 1930s Norman-style villa overlooking the Lagoa Rodrigo das Freitas that was home to art collector Eva Klabin. The second, a beautiful Modernist house located on the lush slopes of the upscale neighborhood of Gávea was built for, and lived in, by the wealthiest and illustrious Moreira Salles family.

Walter Moreira Salles was a distinguished Brazilian businessman, banker, and diplomat. For decades, he presided over Unibanco, founded by his father, João, which grew into one of the largest private banks in Brazil. A cultured man, known for his charm and wit, Walter had an intense interest in the arts (a legacy he passed down to his children; one son João is an acclaimed documentary film maker while another son, Walter Jr., is the internationally renowned director of films such as Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries, and most recently, an adaptation of the Jack Kerouac classic, On the Road.)

In 1992, the family decided to convert their former residence into a private cultural center known as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS). In 1948, Walter called upon Carioca architect Olavo Redig de Campos to build a house located on a 10,000-square-meter patch of land on a steep hillside blanketed by the jungly Tijuca Forest. Completed in 1951, the Moreira Salles house is considered to be Campos’ masterpiece. Its uniqueness stems from the way in which the classic tenets of Modernism are “Brazilian-ified” through the use of sensual curves that soften normally rational lines and typical Brazilian architectural elements such as inner courtyards, latticework, and shiny ceramic tiles (azulejos) that conjure up the nation’s colonial past.

In 1992, the family decided to convert their former residence into a private cultural center known as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS). Aside from hosting temporary art exhibits, IMS screens films and hosts debates, concerts and other events. The family’s private collection of photographs, musical recordings, and books – most of which are devoted to Rio and its history – is open to the public and comprises a rich archive of Carioca history and culture.

Elegantly streamlined, spacious, and suffused with light, the house is captivating in its own right. However, what makes it so striking is the way it merges, harmoniously and shockingly, with its natural surroundings. This is due not only to the house’s immersion in the tropical forest – (a cascading stream flows through the property, tiny mico monkeys swing from the trees, and from time to time, a pendulous, jackfruit plops onto the ground) – but to the extensive gardens, the work of the celebrated artist and landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx.

Although not well know outside of Brazil, aside from designing the iconic black-and-white, mosaic “wave” promenade that famously lines Copacabana beach, Roberto Burle Marx is considered by many to be the inventor of the Modern Garden. Born in São Paulo, in 1909, and raised in Rio de Janeiro, it was ironically in Germany that Burle Marx first became interested in Brazilian flora. When he was 19, his family briefly moved to Berlin during which time he studied painting. In between his art classes, Burle Marx discovered exotic species from his homeland in the Botanical Gardens of Dahlem.

At the time, Brazilian gardens aped European models and were all about geometrical arrangements, rose bushes, and Greco-Roman statues. However, Burle Marx completely subverted these Eurocentric precepts. After his return from Germany, the young artist, who landed a job as Director of Parks and Gardens for the city of Recife, began creating gardens composed entirely of homegrown, and hitherto unsung, native species such as lowly cacti, bromeliads, and palms.

Burle Marx’s gardens shocked – and seduced – not only in terms of their (tropical) content, but in terms of their form as well. Inspired by his painter’s sensibility, his gardens are living canvases in which foliage and flowers, arranged in large sweeping organic forms, allow shapes, colors and textures to play off each other, creating beguiling effects.

In the 1940s, Burle Marx began corresponding with renowned botanists and naturalists around the world. At the same time, he traveled deep into Brazil’s interior, by car, and often on foot, in pursuit of new and interesting Brazilian species. His mission was to “redeem” ignored and unknown plants, by rescuing them from invisibility and introducing them into a new landscaping context.

One of the most successful of Burle Marx’s rescue missions involves the heliconia. Traditionally scorned as nothing more than the flower of a wild banana tree, Burle Marx’s use of these fantastical fire-engine red blossoms – both in floral arrangements and the hundreds of gardens he designed – single-handedly revived the heliconia’s previously ignoble reputation. Indeed, Burle Marx took his heliconia research so seriously that he ended up discovered various new species – some of which are now officially known by the scientific name Heliconia burle-marxii.

Heliconias are on abundant display in the beguiling back yard of the Moreira Salles house as are dense patches of anthuriums, swaying palms, and a cluster of slender pau mulatto (literally “mulatto wood”) trees, whose smooth bronze bark peels away to expose a glistening green underbelly. Burle Marx is also the author of the beautiful blue-and-white, ceramic tiled, pond, whose carp-filled waters are dotted with islands from which wild grasses and daylilies sprout.

The garden is sprinkled with chairs and benches. There is also a café that serves snacks and light meals (as well as copious breakfasts, from 11am-1pm). Cariocas of all ages sit and read, or chat, or even work away on laptops, although I can’t imagine swapping the idyllic surroundings for a spreadsheet. In between checking out the two exhibitions and the bookstore (the Instituto Moreira Salles also publishes Brazilian fiction, poetry, and art books), I kept finding myself drawn back to the oasis of a garden, which lies in the shadow of Dois Irmãos, two towering hunks of rock rising up from the forest that really could be mistaken for “two brothers.”

Sometimes, the combination of a specific place and a specific moment can be so otherworldly that it’s as if you’ve been temporarily dipped into a dream. I certainly felt dream-dripped as I sat in the garden listening to bird squawks, insect hums, and the gush of cascading water while the afternoon turned to indigo and soft lights illuminated the curves and lines of the Moreira Salles’ house. Even once the sky was completely dark, it took considerable effort to wake up, walk out the front gates, and return to the city.

Read the previous part of this article.


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