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American Society of Landscape Architects


March 2006 Issue

Good Faith Ecology
In Brazil, a private fazenda makes a token effort at incorporating remnants of a disappearing forest..

By Jimena Martignoni

Good Faith Ecology
Nelson Kon

Rows upon rows of orange trees shape the imposing cultivated landscape—42,000 acres in all—surrounding one of the most recent projects created by Brazilian landscape architect Fernando Chacel: a private fazenda (Portuguese for hacienda) completed in 2004 in the state of São Paulo, Brazil.

Chacel, one of the most prominent landscape architects of Brazil, has offices in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where his partner, Sidney Linhares, is in charge of supervising all local projects. Chacel’s designs and vision have been highly influenced by Roberto Burle Marx and Brazilian botanist Mello Barreto. Having worked with both of them at the beginning of his career, Chacel developed a process he called “ecogenesis,” based on their work together.

Ecogenesis attempts to compensate for damage to natural habitats caused by human activities such as the development of buildings and roads, mining, and logging. This process primarily consists of reintroducing native flora and plant communities, reestablishing natural habitats and extirpated plant communities, restoring their biological associations through ecological succession, and helping protect remnants of local fauna. At the 42,000-acre fazenda site, Chacel would have his work cut out for him.

The vast agricultural landscape of fazendas has become the visual trademark of the São Paulo region, but it has been created at the expense of an even more inspiring natural feature, the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic forest).

From a botanical perspective, the forest is unusually diverse. More than half of its tree species and nearly three-quarters of the other plants growing in this ecosystem of coastal mountains and highlands are found nowhere else on Earth. Brazilian native pine (Araucaria angustifolia) and the flowering evergreen Drimys brasiliensis inhabit the subtropical semideciduous forests. Upland meadows are covered in grasses and small heaths. The cerrado (savannah)forest is composed of sucupira (Sclerolobium aureum), Dalbergia violacea, and other woody shrubs species. Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) and mangrove trees (Hibiscus riliaceus) thrive in the gallery forest along rivers and streams. The sugar cane and coffee plant (Coffea arabica) typical of the region also inhabit the forests, along with various species of palms, orchids, bromeliads, and lichens.

When the first Portuguese colonizers arrived in Brazil, the Mata Atlântica covered 247,105,381 acres, or 12 percent of the country’s area. Today the forest, declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1992, is less than half of its original size. Due to variations in altitude, climate, vegetation, and sun exposure within the

mata, however, biodiversity is still significant, and the forests contain more trees per hectare than in any other part of the world, according to a study conducted by researchers in Bahia, Brazil, and the Botanic Gardens of New York.

A remnant of the mata lies within view of the fazenda that became the site of Chacel’s project. Before Chacel’s involvement, the owners cleared a 62-acre central spot within their orange plantation for the new fazenda compound. (This farmland had claimed part of the Mata Atlântica in the 1930s, when coffee plantations added orange groves to broaden their financial base after the worldwide economic crash.) Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed the main house and chose its exact location on the site. It occupies almost an acre of the six-acre compound, which also includes courtyards and sports and pool areas.

Chacel first saw the landscape from the air, and he was struck by the contrast between the agricultural lands and the thick forest that framed it. “The need to reincorporate [the forest] into the landscape [design] was clear,” he says.

After seeing Legorreta’s design on paper, Chacel walked the site before construction began on the house. “Once I was at the area where the house would be placed, I let my imagination flow and pictured the space three-dimensionally,” he says. “The design by Legorreta was a big presence.”

When he started planning, Chacel decided to modify the rectilinear shape of the cleared 62-acre site. The area was an almost perfect square, 1,500 by 1,500 feet, which did not match the naturalistic contours of the landscape. In contrast, the surrounding rows of orange trees follow the undulating topography of the site, creating curving stripes in the fields.

Chacel reshaped those boundaries and redefined the site’s perimeter with a curvilinear edge that follows the natural slopes. The edge also defines the course of an internal loop road, from which other secondary paths derive.

Chacel’s layout contains three distinct components: the bosque florestal or forest, the parque or open green space, and the jardins de pre-arquitetura or architectural gardens. Through the design of these different areas, Chacel sought to gradually blend the architectural compound and its more developed landscape with the surrounding agricultural lands, especially between the house and architectural outdoor spaces. This layout not only provides a strong visual connection between architecture and the enclosing plantings, but a mediation of scale that goes from the regional tropical forest on the west edge of the property and the vast green plantations in the far distance to the human-scaled courtyards and paths around the house.

Moreover, Chacel added a space on the west side of the project to visually and botanically reconnect the site to the adjacent finger of the Mata Atlântica, which before his intervention had reached out to nearly touch the western edge of the property, with no buffer or transition between them. Chacel added a contiguous, roughly triangular space to be reforested with indigenous tree species of the mata to serve as a transition between the forest and the property.

 The design’s three differentiated areas cued the plant selection. The long, winding access drive takes in views of the agrarian landscape, breathtaking in its vast uniformity—rows of green trees evenly distributed over the gently rolling land. For the portion of road that becomes the main entrance drive and runs parallel to a private runway, the designers planted a thick double allée of noninvasive bamboo, which added lush, cool greenery to the approach. More than 10 years ago, a different entrance drive within the site had been successfully planted with this bamboo canopy, which will eventually grow to nine to twelve feet in height. Although the bamboo is only about seven feet tall and hasn’t yet achieved the intended effect, it’s easy to picture the green tunnel that will be formed by the gracefully bending trunks as the plants mature.

For the replanted bosque florestal, which envelops the home site following the perimeter redefined by Chacel, all species are native and were chosen based on their local importance, botanically and culturally. The plant selection was based on scientific research conducted in 1997 by biologist Adriana de Fatima Rozza at the Institute of Biology of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in São Paulo. She developed inventories of the Mata Atlântica in an effort to guide restoration of rainforest areas.

Some of the most important native tree species include ipe branco (Tabebuia roseo-alba and all Tabebuia sp.), jatoba (Hymenaea stilbocarpa), jequitiba (Cariniana legalis), and jacaranda pardo (Machaerium villosum). By planting all the typical genera of the Mata Atlântica and applying ecological principles such as plant succession, the bosque florestal seeks to match natural composition, but the planting plan’s goal is not to re-create the original forest. This is a design intended for human use, enclosed in a natural area. The planting configuration, a 12- by 12-foot grid, makes that clear and allows visitors to walk through the forest unobstructed.

At this fazenda, only the bosque florestal was designed based on the ecogenesis process, and the different species were planted according to certain characteristics that speed reforestation. “Pioneer” species, for instance, grow faster, generating bigger groups that provide larger shady spots in less time. To achieve rapid plant coverage, more pioneer species were planted; they include lapachos (Tabebuia sp.), Jacaranda sp., mulberry (Morus sp.), and coral tree (Erytrina sp.). “Secondary species”—such as Eugenia sp., Casearia sp., and Spondias sp.—grow more slowly, and the total number of individual secondary plants is fewer.

In the parque, at the center of the site (the inner part of the loop), the house faces the orange plantation on the northwest. The area in front of the house is a large green lawn (approximately 12 acres) that is practically flat, with no planting other than turf grass to accent the thick, naturalistic borders. Chacel explains that the client wanted an area cleared of vegetation to allow views. Here at the main house entrance, 600-foot-long granite steps descend from the house to the surrounding fields.

The parque has incorporated some ornamental species close to the house compound and framing parts of the loop. The plantings include nonnatives that have naturalized in the state of São Paulo and taken on cultural significance. Some native and nonnative palms such as Cuban royal palm (Roystoneas regya), queen palm (Syagrus romanzzofiana), and Alexandra palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) demarcate different areas in the park. Due to their elegant form, other kinds of royal palm (Roystoneas oleracea) were used to outline the entrance road to the house.

The jardins de pre-arquitetura—formal gardens that follow the architecture’s lines and frame some of the courtyards and paths—mix native tropical flowers and shrubs with introduced species. Some of the natives include Bromeliads sp., Philodendros sp., Heliconias sp., and red ginger (Alpinia purpurata). Sterlitzia or white bird of paradise, Hemerocallis or day lily, and Bulbine or burn jelly plant are some of the principal exotic species. Some of the best well-achieved design effects are created with flowering beds and shrubs whose colors echo the strong ochre and purple palette of the residence, which is typical of Legorreta’s architecture. In this manner the gardens offer an introduction to the buildings and the site, the first phase of a gradual progression from house to surroundings.

Grading and planting began at the same time as the building construction, September 2003.

Chacel’s entire design for this property employs vegetation as an architectural element, and its structure relies solely on the planting plan. Many landscape plans use plants only as aesthetic features (adding color and shapes), as functional components (to act as screens or partitions or to achieve specific ecological objectives), or as structural elements (to define spaces, accesses, or connections). But in this case vegetation plays all these roles, becoming the key material used to structure the design, a significant aesthetic component, and an essential factor in restoring some ecological balance.

This expansive use of plantings was already explored in Brazil by Burle Marx. Chacel, whose work has also been based on knowledge of local species and how plants behave and adapt to different situations, has applied this concept in a project where both nature and architecture called for a strong design response.

Because of the early-stage plant growth, the replanted forest is not yet as lush as the other portions of the site. Standing in any one of Chacel’s spaces, one can clearly perceive it as distinct and bounded as a whole. As the plantings mature, those flowing spaces will eventually realize the design’s subtle transitions in scale and fill out the shapes and colors, reflecting the horizontality, defined silhouettes, and ochre and purple walls of Legorreta’s architecture.

And while it does not restore the slice of the Brazilian Mata Atlântica that the plantation claimed early in the twentieth century, Chacel’s design reflects some of the composition of this original diverse forest, replanting all the most typical species and providing some continuity with the surrounding remnant.

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