Articles and Features

César Manrique: The Architect and Protector of Lanzarote

Portrait of César Manrique, 1969.
César Manrique in Las Piconeras, Gran Canaria, 1969.

By Adam Hencz

“I’m like that, like my island, full of passion, power and, at the same time, naturalness. I always say that I didn’t come into this world wearing socks and a tie. I arrived naked, and I attempt to go through life like that.”

César Manrique

There is an island in the Atlantic Ocean that was created entirely by the brutal forces of nature, shaped by repeated volcanic eruptions that destroyed even the last bits of the fertile lands of its native people. On this island, the island of Lanzarote, with a surface similar to that of the Moon and Mars, an artist urged to pay tribute to the volcanic landscape and the unconditional rawness and beauty of his homeland. César Manrique used Lanzarote’s dreary, lunar lava plains and rock-covered hills as his canvas and built architectural and urban projects all around the island in the search of expressing harmony between humans and nature. Manrique, also a painter, sculptor, urbanist, and environmental activist, contributed to the economic and social functionalism of his native land in an unprecedented way. With his exceptional ability to combine nature and artifice, he created gardens, lookouts, designed cultural centers, and led touristic and shoreline reforms on many of the Canary Islands as well as way beyond the archipelago.

César Manrique, the artist who shaped the island of Lanzarote

César Manrique Cabrera was born in 1919 in Arrecife on the island of Lanzarote, one of the volcanic islands of the Canary Islands, just off the coast of North Africa. Born into a typical middle-class family, Manrique would spend his childhood summer vacations just by the island’s most beautiful natural beaches like the eight-kilometer long Famara beach, framed by cliffs of more than four hundred meters high. The time spent there at their family house and its surrounding tranquil nature left an enduring impression on him. Manrique fought in the Spanish Civil War voluntarily but refused to talk about it when he returned to the island in 1939.

César Manrique with family and friends, ca. 1934.
César Manrique with family and friends by Famara beach on Lanzarote, ca. 1934.

Living in Madrid and New York

After the war, he entered the Canarian La Laguna University to study architecture, a technical program he abandoned after two years. In 1945, Manrique decided to pursue an artistic career instead and moved to Madrid to enter the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy. After the academy, as a freshly graduated painter and art professor, Manrique started exhibiting his work on a regular basis both in Spain and abroad. He had been living and working successfully in Madrid for almost two decades when, in 1964, following the advice of his cousin who was a psychoanalyst and writer based in New York City, Manrique traveled to the Big Apple. In New York City, he immersed himself in the new aesthetic ideals, movements, and visual culture that later would play a crucial role in his creative development. A generous art sponsorship from Nelson Rockefeller made it possible for Manrique to rent a studio on the East Side of Manhattan. During this period, Manrique exhibited three solo shows with the prestigious New York gallery Catherine Viviano. Despite his fruitful friendships with artists, journalists, writers, and bohemians, he began to feel nostalgia for his native island and left the city in the summer of 1966.

“People in New York live like rats. Humans were not created for all this artificiality. There is a necessity of coming back to Earth. Feeling it, smelling it. That’s how I feel. I miss the purity of nature.”

César Manrique

Architecture

Manrique returned to Lanzarote in a prosperous period when the island’s leadership promoted a genuine and successful tourism model based on the remodeling of natural spaces and resources. Jameos del Agua (1968) was Manrique’s first commission to create an art and cultural center on Lanzarote and the first time he incorporated natural formations like volcanic tunnels and bubbles into his work on such a large scale. It is considered as one of the essential works in Manrique’s career, a project that served to propel him towards the rich syncretism of other disciplines. His spatial intervention includes a natural auditorium, a museum, and a scientific center as well as a restaurant with a terrace by a garden of palm trees surrounding an artificial lake.

A swimming pool in Taro de Tahiche, César Manrique's home between 1968 and 1988.
A swimming pool in the lower garden of the Taro de Tahiche, the building that served as César Manrique’s home between 1968 and 1988.

The same year, Manrique started working on his own private home, turning a group of volcanic bubbles into a lavish subterranean home, perfectly integrated into the surrounding landscape. He combined traditional architecture and enhanced its simplicity with modern functional elements such as sprawling staircases, wide windows, and spacious halls. The building, also known as Taro de Tahiche, currently serves as a home for the César Manrique Foundation.

A spiral staircase in the Mirador del Río.
A spiral staircase leading to the top of the Mirador del Río (1973) lookout.

Manrique’s other important architectural and major touristic contribution to Lanzarote is Mirador del Río (1973), a lookout and restaurant building formed by two buried domes, integrated into the highest peaks of the Risco de Famara. From almost 500 meters high,  Mirador del Río offers a stunning panoramic view of the Chinijo Archipelago, as well as several terraces and immense windows.

Paintings

Even though it is his architectural work that made the biggest influence on the island, before anything, Manrique considered himself a painter. After a short excursion into figurative painting, in the 1950s Manrique delved into abstraction and investigated its possibilities until it became the essential protagonist of his compositions. He co-founded the Fernando Fé Gallery while living in Madrid, the first gallery to focus on non-figurative art in the whole country. The abstract character and plasticity of his paintings are informed by his impressions of the volcanic landscape of Lanzarote and served as a solid base for his later monumental works.

Kinetic Sculptures

In the early 1990s, Manrique started sketching and developing a series of kinetic sculptures he would simply refer to as Wind Toys. The wooden windmills that once dominated the rural landscape but had started to disappear in the mid-twentieth century served as a major inspiration for his wind-powered mobile sculptures. The shapes and colors of these structures reflect modernist features while the joined movement of their elements embodies a clear summary of Manrique’s central ideas, the symbiosis between man and nature. Unfortunately, Manrique himself could not accomplish this public art project and made only a few sketches of these kinetic sculptures as he lost his life in a tragic car accident close to his home in Arrecife in 1992. Eventually, the local municipality along with the workshops that had had a significant part in the realization of Manrique’s previous sculptures and monuments finished the Wind Toys project based on Manrique’s vivid drawings and erected his kinetic sculptures around Lanzarote.

Untitled kinetic sculpture created by César Manrique in the early 1990s.
César Manrique, Untitled piece from the series Wind Toys (1990s).

Activism and Legacy

While contributing greatly to the development of Lanzarote’s tourist industry, Manrique repeatedly expressed his concerns about the industry’s polluting and destructive forces and foreshadowed the avalanche of tourists Lanzarote was about to please. He documented the island’s unique traditional architectural style and persuaded locals to preserve it as he was committed to protecting the island’s cultural and scenic values and was not afraid to confront authorities or businessmen to raise attention to the “destructive greed as well as the brainless concept of progress.” The dark forces of mass tourism still threaten the island of Lanzarote, and the fight for measures to mitigate over-tourism continues to this day, but Manrique’s legacy and his fiercely anti-development and protective views are being echoed among those native to the island who take a stand to save their unique volcanic island from exploitation.

Relevant sources to learn more

Read more stories on iconic artworks: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands
Visit the César Manrique Foundation‘s website

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