At nearly 80 years of age, and after a career as one of the world's most renowned landscape architects, Roberto Burle Marx is still in love with plants.
His plane had barely landed in Miami after the long flight from Rio de Janeiro, but even before unpacking at the home of friends, Burle Marx had already visited a local nursery to examine a particularly rare orchid.
"The invitation . . . was irresistible," he said in a telephone interview. "It excites me to observe a living plant I have never seen before. Such experiences replenish my curiosity and my fascination with creation.
"Plants are so very expressive. Some give out an exquisite fragrance to lure birds that will pollinate them, while others exude a foul odor equally important to their survival.
"And why does nature, with the one hand, create a leaf so broad and tough that a child can float on, and with the other, fashion a flower as tiny as a pinhead containing all the organs for its reproduction?
"These mysteries, these forces of nature, are my gods. When I no longer have the curiosity to pursue them, I will surely die."
Burle Marx will discuss his work at the inauguration of the USC School of Architecture's architect-in-residence program, funded by Maguire Thomas Partners, at 8 p.m. Monday in Bovard Auditorium on the campus. The public is invited to the lecture and a reception that will follow. Tickets are $6 and students pay $4.
It is the first public lecture in Los Angeles for the Brazilian landscape architect, and it is also his last, he said, after more than two decades as a visiting lecturer in the United States. Burle Marx is content that his traveling days are just about over.
"In the time that remains, I would like to do more painting and create new gardens," he said, adding that nowadays he is happiest when painting at his country home south of Rio--a restored 19th-Century plantation house with a 25-acre back yard, an important natural preserve that employs 20 full-time gardeners and will eventually become a national treasure.
An innovator in rectilinear and geometric landscape compositions, especially in gardens closely integrated with architecture, Burle Marx is best known for his collaboration with Le Corbusier on major Brazilian public buildings, with Oscar Niemeyer in the landscaping of the Brazilian capital and in the many miles of mosaic-patterned sidewalks along Rio's famous shoreline.
His work can also be seen in the interior courts of the UNESCO Building in Paris, the landscaping of massive landfills in Rio de Janeiro, in numerous private gardens in South America, in Europe and in Washington.
His major current American project is Miami's Biscayne Boulevard, expected to open for the fifth centennial of Columbus' discovery of America.
During the interview, Burle Marx reminisced on his early days.
"I was greatly influenced by Le Corbusier," Burle Marx said. "When he came to Brazil in 1936 I was a student at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio. . . . I was lucky to be chosen . . . to work with Le Corbusier on the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health.
"One is fortunate to be able to exchange ideas with great minds," he said, referring to special friends like Buckminster Fuller and Walter Gropius, "who reflected the essence of their times with original expression."
A crusader for all living green things, Burle Marx specializes in lush, tropical gardens that incorporate the varied flora of his native land.
"Plants must be placed with clarity and purpose in settings that replicate their natural habitat. . . . When I first started designing I wanted to use everything I knew. The result was a big salad. I eventually learned that 'minus is more,' " he said said.
"I hate formulas and repetition but I believe in principles. All experience is important but not all expression is the same. Debussy knew how to create an emotion in his music by carefully constructing it, just as Shakespeare constructed Horatio's speech.
"I construct a garden in the same way, as an entire composition, choreographing the relationship between the plants, which are the actors of my gardens."
Sculptor and Painter
When Burle Marx received the coveted ASLA Medal in 1986, highest award bestowed by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the award stated that "few individuals have equaled his stature as a 20th-Century Renaissance man within the design professions."
Conversant in six languages, Burle Marx is a sculptor, designer and accomplished painter whose oils hang in Rio's Museum of Fine Arts and whose murals are on buildings throughout Brazil. Also recognized as a botanist, he rejects the label as "presumptuous."
"I am simply a collector of plant life," he insisted, even though he has discovered more than 100 new plants and received the ultimate honor botanists can give a peer, by having at least 17 species named after him.
Much of Burle Marx's time and energy in the past two decades has been spent furthering the cause of conservation.
'Destroyed in Name of Progress'
"I'm deeply concerned about what is happening to the world's natural resources and, in particular, to the Amazon region. It is a crime that 30% of the virgin forests are dying. Brazilians are largely responsible, but foreigners are also ruthlessly exploiting the region.
"Nature is always destroyed in the name of progress, but it is a cycle of life you must understand in order to take liberties with it in good conscience."
Was there, the architect was asked, a favorite garden among all those he had created?
"My favorite garden is always the last garden I have done because the emotion that led me to create it is still fresh and very real, until it is replaced by another new discovery of plant use within myself."