How Do You Build a Jungle?

In the cities of Brazil, a landscape architect creates abundant private gardens that rewild the terrain from which these metropolises grew.

Article by Michael Snyder

Ground-hugging aluminum plantGround-hugging aluminum plant, native to Southeast Asia, surrounds a gnarled grumixama, a fruiting tree indigenous to the Atlantic rainforest, at the Brazilian landscape architect Isabel Duprat’s Jardim Botânico in São Paulo, completed in 2013. Photograph by Pedro Kok.

The architects Marcio Kogan and Renata Furlanetto of the Brazilian firm Studio MK27 had just broken ground on a new house in São Paulo in 2010 when the landscape designer Isabel Duprat informed them that they’d have to raise the entire 3,117-square-metre project, known as Casa Rampa, by almost 51 centimetres. The root system of a towering sibipiruna tree — a flowering giant native to the Atlantic rainforest ecosystem that once encompassed much of Brazil’s coast — extended farther into the plot than they’d thought. Maintaining the original position of the residence, a second home for a couple and their art collection, would mean fatally destabilising the plant. “There were two options: you move the house, or the tree dies,” says Duprat, 69, on a temperate afternoon, standing beneath its delicate bipinnate leaves. The architects didn’t hesitate: “We never touch big trees,” says Kogan, 72.

Today, that plant is one of thousands on the grounds, a place where monarch ferns frill around the auburn necks of melinonii philodendrons and buttercream and magenta orchids hang like pendants from a jabuticabeira, its spreading copper- limbs blistered with purple fruit. It takes precision to harness so much abundance; raising the house to save the sibipiruna, for instance, meant inserting tiers in the terrain to avoid girdling the roots of pre-existing loquats and phoenix palms. To place ipê and capirona trees, both Amazonian hardwoods, Duprat stood on the house’s first-floor balcony and directed her team of five gardeners below as they rotated each plant, composing the canopy to eliminate views of nearby high-rises. The rescued tree, says the 48-year-old Furlanetto, “became part of the architecture”, casting shadows through a skylight that dapple the internal concrete ramp for which the project was named. The rest of the house, says Diana Radomysler, MK27’s 63-year-old director of interiors, “was a frame for the garden”.

Swirling tiers of creeping pilea
Swirling tiers of creeping pilea, Xanadu, elephant ear and pinstripe calathea rise to meet the lower canopies of a pair of ingá trees at 2009’s Jardim Brasileiro, which Duprat designed for her sister-in-law’s São Paulo home. Photograph by Pedro Kok.
Ferns, philodendrons and flowering rose grape engulf a pool,
Ferns, philodendrons and flowering rose grape engulf a pool, all designed by Duprat at Casa Rampa, a house built in 2015 by the São Paulo architecture firm Studio MK27. Photograph by Pedro Kok.

The integration of nature and built space has defined Brazilian architecture since the 1930s, when the painter and self-taught landscape architect Roberto
Burle Marx started doing gardens for some of the country’s most iconic Modernist buildings. For his earliest public projects in the northern city of Recife, where a Dutch administrator had planted Brazil’s first known gardens nearly 300 years earlier, Burle Marx scandalised Eurocentric
elites with his use of Amazonian lily pads and cactuses from the arid Caatinga, an impoverished region in the country’s interior. “They claimed I was trying to return their city to the jungle,” Burle Marx would recall in 1994, just before his death at age 84, although he had no interest in rewilding. Rather, he wanted to cultivate a distinctly Brazilian idiom. Beginning with the Italianate geometries of Rio de Janeiro’s Passeio Público, the country’s first municipal garden, built over a pestilential lagoon between 1779 and ’83, Brazilian parks often mirrored European ones. The botanical gardens of the late 18th century replicated the era’s “green imperialism”, as the architect and professor Hugo Segawa puts it, “a way to dominate the world by dominating its knowledge of plants”.

By the end of the 19th century, French landscape architects like Auguste François Marie Glaziou and his protégé Paul Villon had transformed the gardens in Rio, then the nation’s capital, with winding paths and follies like those found throughout London and Paris. Like Glaziou before him, Burle Marx went on frequent exploratory missions into Brazil’s hinterlands to collect and identify native species; but where the French designer deployed the flora in patterns lifted from the Old World, Burle Marx moulded them — along with acclimatised exotics — into sweeping, colour-blocked abstractions, indivisible from (and no less manufactured than) the buildings they surrounded. By 1991, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of his work, he had become the world’s most renowned living landscape architect.

Despite that history, Brazil’s prestigious architecture schools have never offered a specialised degree in landscape design (although they include limited coursework in the field). Only a small handful of Duprat’s predecessors — among them Fernando Chacel in Rio and Rosa Kliass in São Paulo — have approached Burle Marx’s stature. Most clients, says Duprat, who started designing private gardens in the early 1980s, treat the discipline as an afterthought. Landscape architects “are like ghosts”, she says. “We make things happen and then we disappear.” But her gardens, with their sinuous terracing, painterly layers of colour and texture and plantings that rise to meet — or, at times, recreate — the forest, demand to be seen. While “architects scale their vision to the roofline,” Duprat says, “our reference point is the sky.”

Born in São Paulo in 1954, Duprat traces her family’s involvement in landscape design to the 1850s. Back then, her great-great-great-uncle,
the Viscount of Bom Retiro, expropriated private lands on behalf of the Brazilian state to reforest Rio’s peaks of granite and gneiss, which had been denuded by the growing coffee industry. Planted with thousands of native copaiba trees and exotic jackfruits, those blighted hills would eventually become
the Tijuca National Park, the largest urban forest in the world. Another of Duprat’s ancestors, Raimundo da Silva Duprat, was the mayor of São Paulo during its own radical transformations in the early 20th century; he oversaw major public works like the construction of a Parisian-style pleasure park built over a buried river in the city centre. Less than half a century after its conception in 1911, the park was buried, too, this time beneath a highway.

A bed of peace lilies
A bed of peace lilies flanked by parlor palms and wide-leafed cyclanthus at the Jardim Botânico. Photograph by Pedro Kok.

Growing up in a city that barely conserved its connection to its historic landscapes, Duprat developed her love of gardens during weekends spent arranging flowers and collecting seeds at her family’s farm about two hours outside of the metropolis. In 1973, she enrolled at São Paulo’s Mackenzie School of Architecture and Urbanism, where she compensated for the lack of coursework on landscape design by reading everything she could on English and Japanese gardens and attending botany courses at the University of São Paulo. Two years into her studies, she entered the city’s Department of Green Spaces as an intern, where she offered classes in garden history to hobbyists and later helped design public parks. Duprat went into private practice in 1982, while also running a nursery and garden shop in the Jardins neighbourhood, and within a decade had as many clients in Rio as in São Paulo. She’d extend her frequent trips to the coast to spend weekends with Burle Marx at his botanical sanctuary on Rio’s western outskirts, where she’d apprenticed briefly after completing her architecture degree. “The contact with Burle Marx and with the landscape of Rio, which is so sensual and organic and strong — I brought this back with me to São Paulo,” Duprat says. “In the beginning, [some local] architects felt my work was too strong, too aggressive with their buildings.”

She nonetheless fought for her vision, which is on full display at the home of Duprat’s sister-in-law, completed in 2009 by the São Paulo firm Andrade Morettin. Here, in Jardim Europa, the architects accepted her proposal to set their 4,475-square-metre prism of perforated steel screens more than 12 metres back from the street-facing boundary wall — a deferential gesture that opened a 1,310-square-metre forecourt where Duprat sunk whorls of native ferns, begonias and calatheas almost half a metre below a travertine pathway, “like the entrance to a private rainforest”, she says.

The house’s front garden is less a place for relaxation than a living tapestry, legible only from above, a vantage essential to many of Burle Marx’s projects. Although Duprat bristles at being compared to her mentor (“Even today,” she says, “people act as if Burle Marx is the only landscape architect in Brazil”), she shares his belief that gardens can restore our fundamental connection to nature. Throughout his career, Burle Marx used his fame — and, in the 1960s and ’70s, an ethically dubious role as a cultural counsellor under Brazil’s military dictatorship — to denounce the destruction of the Amazon, which continues today. If Duprat works mostly on private projects, that’s in part because the appetite for massive public interventions has more or less disappeared, with grave consequences. In São Paulo, she says, “when leaves fall, people hate it. When flowers [drop on their windscreens], they hate it. [But] we destroy the Amazon and no one does anything about it.” The connection, for her, is clear: by living without green space and locking ourselves in climate-controlled buildings, we disrupt the cycles of death and rebirth that shape our world.

The year before finishing her sister-in-law’s garden, Duprat received a commission to develop nearly half a hectare of land on the same São Paulo street where she’d lived on and off from childhood until she was 25. Her client, a native of Rio, asked her to create an oasis within the concrete city. While a Rio garden at this scale would almost certainly face outward toward mountains and sea, here Duprat erased the city behind a canopy of cedro-rosa, sapucaia and cabreuva trees. A decade after its completion, the garden is not quite manicured but not quite wild, like a patch of rainforest that, restored to its rightful place, has adapted to an urban landscape. The garden is a fantasy, of course, but it’s also a reminder that human beings can do more than just destroy. With time and patience, we can make things grow — far beyond the roofline, up into the sky.

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