Manrique – Magnificent & Magical

I have written many times here on Lanzarote Information, about Cesar Manrique and his art and his attitudes that helped steer Lanzarote to become the much loved tourist destination it now is. Few, if any, other artists can ever have so affected the shape of their country as the man who, thirty years after his death, is still revered by the island´s people. I believe the beauty he created over our landscape and the pride and ethos he instilled, if used effectively, will also help attract visitors to the island as we emerge from the global hibernation of the last year or so.

Of course, I´m not alone in admiring and writing about Manrique´s work. In January 2021, in the midst of our level four lockdown here, the opening paragraph of an article in The Guardian caught my eye. Written by Oliver Wainwright it spoke of how:

´a sea of gnarled black lava spills in through the window of a white cubic house on the island of Lanzarote, tumbling in contorted waves on to the polished concrete floor. A pair of chubby cacti cling to the rocky windowsill, as if swept indoors by the churning torrent of molten basalt outside. It looks as if the building might have been swamped by a volcanic eruption, but this is no natural disaster. It is the work of César Manrique, the celebrated artist-architect of Lanzarote. Harnessing lava formations as other designers use concrete and steel, he conjured spectacular spaces from the caves, bubbles and tunnels left by the primal movements of molten magma.´

Far less eloquently, perhaps, but I have been trying to tell people that for years. Ever since first coming to the island on holiday in 1999 when my wife and I scribbled postcards to family and friends back in England. For several years of holidaying here I would review our holiday in my all across the arts pages in The Manchester Evening News Media Group.

Then, after we came to live here in 2015, I began writing for Lanzarote Information and from that platform, writing for English speaking residents I have continued to write regularly and excitedly about Manrique and his work. When we visited his former home soon after settling here we wrote about that and when, two years ago, we attended each of the fourteen exhibitions, concerts and musical dramas held in the capital Arrecife, to celebrate the hundredth centenary of his birth, we reviewed each one of them in separate articles.

Twelve months later I launched my own daily blog, Sidetracks & Detours, looking at the arts in General for English speakers around the world and have continued to ever since regularly include, in those posts, report on all things Manrique.

The house Mr. Wainwright wrote about in that opening paragraph was Manrique´s own home, now the César Manrique Foundation. As The Guardian journalist rightly says,

´this art gallery is just one of the unsung treasures of Lanzarote, an island which, along with the other Canaries, has a reputation as a package holiday destination.

“Art into nature, nature into art,” was Manrique’s motto, and by the time he died in 1992, in a car accident near his home, he had left Lanzarote scattered with a series of startling projects that fuse landscape, art and architecture in a style all his own. Driven by a desire to preserve and enhance the drama of the island’s unique volcanic terrain, he campaigned tirelessly against the kind of high-rise resorts that had scarred the Spanish coast, arguing for a scale of development in tune with the Canary Islands’ rugged natural beauty. Ecologist, sculptor and geologist-architect extraordinaire, his work is being rediscovered by a new generation as the island sheds its “Lanzagrotty” image, exchanging Club 18-30 package deals for eco-yurts, boutique B&Bs and tourists with a nose for design.´

Oliver Wainwright is clearly taken with all, for there is more to his writing than mere thinly-veiled tourist attracting hyperbole. Sitting down to re-read his article and to add my own perspective too, it is strange to feel that we have just come in from a walk on a deserted island in a virtual lockdown, if less tense and stringent than friends describe that in the UK. Nevertheless, our restaurants close at 6.00 pm and many other business are closed with more than 500 business bankruptcies reported on the island since the emergence of covid. Today has been cloudy and stormy, an almost unheard of skyscape on this island. Manrique´s wind toys, as I write this, are dervishes whirling in the gale force rain. How the island, nay, the world, could do with Manrique´s calm and vision and his oneness with nature at this time, in this hour of need.

As Oliver Wainwright told Guardian readers,

´Manrique began building his house when he returned to Lanzarote in 1966, after a spell working as an artist in New York. The legend goes that he spotted a fig tree standing alone in the lava field, the only sign of life in the middle of the barren black expanse, and decided to build his home around it. Around it and under it, too, he incorporated a beguiling network of connected caves and sunken courtyards, formed by the flows of pressurised liquid rock centuries earlier.

Inside, it could be where Barbarella meets The Flintstones, the raw, primal geology of the Earth’s crust furnished with streamlined sixties style. A white leather banquette nestles in a nook of one cave, curving around a palm tree that sprouts from the middle of a glossy white concrete floor, its green trunk poking up through a hole in the ceiling. A winding passage leads to another cave where bulbous glass pendant lamps dangle from the rock-face, illuminating a daybed dotted with red leather cushions. Nearby, basalt steps lead down to a shimmering azure pool, fringed with the lush leaves of enormous Swiss cheese plants. It is the ultimate party house, a Bond villain’s dream of hidden chambers reached by narrow passageways, the architecture amplifying the natural magic of the ragged rocks.

Born in Lanzarote’s capital of Arrecife in 1919, Manrique fought in the Spanish civil war as a volunteer on Franco’s side, before returning to study architecture at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife.

The technical strictures of the course didn’t suit his artistic temperament, so he dropped out after two years and moved to Madrid to study painting, where he was strongly influenced by Picasso and Matisse. He became a successful artist and, on the advice of his psychoanalyst cousin, moved to New York in 1964, where he received a grant from Nelson Rockefeller that allowed him to rent his own studio on the Lower East Side, then a bohemian enclave of artists and writers. His work was exhibited widely, including at the Guggenheim Museum, but he never acclimatised to life in the big city.

As he wrote to a friend: ´I feel true nostalgia for the real meaning of things., like the pureness of the people, like the bareness of my landscape and for my friends.´ He concluded that ´man in New York is like a rat. Man was not created for this artificiality. There is an imperative need to go back to the soil. Feel it, smell it. That’s what I feel.´

Returning to Lanzarote in 1966, Manrique embraced the power of the landscape like never before, taking the twisted contortions of the windswept volcanic island as his canvas.

His first public project was the Jameos del Agua, a kind of subterranean art and cultural centre buried inside part of a 6 km-long lava tunnel, created by the eruption of the Monte Corona volcano 3,000 years earlier. Jameo is a word from the language the islands spoke before the Spanish arrived and means a large cave-like opening in a lava tube, such as is created when part of the ceiling collapses. In a series of three of these jameos, Manrique choreographed an impossibly theatrical journey.

First, visitors to the Cesar Manrique Foundation descend a winding staircase into a cavernous restaurant, where exotic plants dangle inside lobster pots and dining terraces look out over an underground lagoon populated by albino crabs, their eerie white bodies lit by a dramatic shaft of light from the ceiling. Another set of steps then leads up an open-air hollow, where a spectacular swimming pool is surrounded on all sides by jagged cliffs and leaning palm trees. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more surreal, a cleft in the rock-face leads to another cave, where a 600-seat auditorium descends into the stygian depths.

When Hollywood star Rita Hayworth visited the CM foundation in 1974, she proclaimed the complex the ´eighth wonder of the world´ and it’s not hard to see why. Two bars built into alcoves in the rocks, equipped with boulder stools and a poolside dance floor, give you an idea of the kind of wild parties held here back in its heyday. Although it’s still open to the public, swimming is strictly prohibited, unless you’re the king of Spain.

A more democratic experience can still be had across the island at Manrique’s El Diabolo restaurant, perched like a circular space station at the top of a mountain, looking out over the lava fields of Timanfaya national park on the west coast. Eating here feels like dining in a lunar observation base, with panoramic windows bulging from the black basalt walls, framing the barren wilderness below. Chief attraction is the performance of the cooking, which takes place in a conical chamber with an altar-like barbecue grill in the centre, suspended over a volcanic well where the temperature reaches 400C, 6 metres below the ground.

The word Timanfaya, by the way, meaning fire mountains, has recently also been borrowed by scientists to name part of the landscape indentified on Mars,

Ever conscious of the power of the natural landscape, one of Manrique’s greatest talents was knowing when not to intervene.
When a grand plan by a Madrid architect for an elaborate holiday village on the north coast of the island fell through, Manrique suggested a more subtle intervention. He had a hollow dug out of the cliff, where he laid out a restaurant and observation deck, which he then roofed over with domes, covered in earth and grass. Almost invisible from the outside, Mirador del Río is entered via a winding white-painted tunnel that worms its way through the ground.´

Oliver Wainwright captures that majesty splendidly, but breath-taking though his writing is, it cannot, nevertheless, make your heart lurch the way my heart does whenever I visit Mirador and I look down to the entire circumference of the tiny shape of Graciosa (now officially the eighth Canary island) hundreds of feet below in a sunlit, diamond-dusted sea. This viewing place was in fact the site of the press conference where reporters here were convened to learn of the proposed centenary celebrations for the birth of Manrique. If any of my colleagues did not already comprehend the breadth and depth of Manrique´s vision they surely did in that moment when they stood where he once had, and saw what had seen.

´When you visit these projects,´ Mr Wainwright concedes, ´it is hard to imagine quite how Manrique would have drawn up his designs before the days of 3D computer modelling, and the simple answer is he didn’t. He never produced working drawings, but instead designed his structures and details on site, issuing instructions verbally and relying on the practical know-how of his talented builder, Luis Morales. Operating in a way that had more in common with ad hoc land art than conventional architectural practice, his ideas would often change according to what he found on the site, with construction plans usually drawn up and approved after the event.

It was a style of working that was perhaps possible only because of the respect Manrique commanded on the island. As a childhood friend of José Ramirez Cerdá, then president of the Cabildo, the island’s government, he was able to exert huge influence on Lanzarote’s wider planning policy, encouraging a model of sustainable tourism before the term had been coined.

He succeeded in banning advertising hoardings, having telephone and electricity cables laid underground and confining mass tourism to three main coastal regions, as well as imposing height restrictions on hotels. One particularly exacting rule, betraying Manrique’s roots as a painter, specified that, on all new homes, the doors and shutters facing inland should be painted forest green, while those facing the sea should be marine blue. The stringent regime wasn’t to last, and soon commercial forces took over, although Lanzarote remains remarkably unspoilt, in large part due to Manrique’s passionate ecological stance, encouraging a respect for the landscape above all else.

I sincerely hope that in our determination to rush back out into the light we not grab so quickly and desperately to reclaim our market share of the world tourist industry that we forget how the uniqueness of Manrique´s vision won that for us in the first place.

Despite his fiercely anti-development views, and his desire to rid the island of extraneous visual clutter, Manrique had a penchant for a touch of well-placed whimsy. Along with his subterranean lairs, among his most visible legacies are the mesmerising ´wind toys” that can be found dotted around the island. Inspired by the windmills that once covered Lanzarote, these colourful kinetic sculptures are formed of geometric spheres, pyramids and cubes that somehow interlock and rotate around each other with Escher-like impossibility.

One of these glittering whirligigs crowns a curious conical pavilion nestled at the base of his last great work. A mecca for cactus lovers from around the world, the Jardín de Cactus is a spellbinding ode to the spiny succulents, set in the terraced bowl of a former quarry that now brims with more than 10,000 cactus specimens. The approach is part of the magic: the sunken garden is surrounded by fields of giant prickly pear plants, which are still grown to cultivate cochineal bugs for red dye (once Lanzarote’s chief cash crop, now enjoying a resurgence as a consequence of the suspicion of artificial food additives). After passing rows of these pears sprouting from the lunar landscape, you enter the garden through a fortified basalt gateway, to find an amphitheatre of staggered terraces bursting with spiky shafts and furry blobs of all shapes and sizes. It is an otherworldly place, a distillation of the wild qualities of the island and the architect’s ability to combine nature and artifice.´

As Manrique put it: “We haven’t achieved utopia, but we have managed to brush up close.”

If Mr. Wainwright wished to apply for the position of advisor to the Director Of Tourism or Minister For Arts either or both posts on Lanzarote would surely be his. I have a notion that the legacy of Manrique and the future of Lanzarote would be safe in his hands. And I am certain, that revered and used wisely, that legacy will ensure we restore Lanzarote to her former glories.

  • Radley Roof Solutions