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The man who designed utopia

César Manrique was the architect and artist who had a grand masterplan for a Lanzarote without advertising, high-rises or cheap buildings. We hear about a singular visionary, and ask whether that vision succeeded

  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia
  • The man who designed utopia

There is a place in Europe where there’s no advertising – no Coca-Cola signs or tacky billboards – and no high-rise buildings; where whitewashed villages sit amid jaw-dropping black volcanic landscapes; and where modernist lairs worthy of a James Bond villain are built into rivers of lava.

Welcome to Lanzarote, the first place in Europe to introduce package holidays in the 1970s, and an island many still imagine to be an all-inclusive tourist trap. The fact it’s so much more than that is in large part down to one man: César Manrique, the visionary artist and architect who not only peppered the island with sculptures, signs and stunning pieces of architecture, but lobbied authorities to develop sensitive “intelligent tourism”. It’s because of Manrique that there are no high-rises or advertising hoardings here. He once said: “I think this is the first place in Europe where all the advertisments have been removed from the landscape. I used to go around at night destroying the adverts. We have advertising in the press, on the radio, on TV, and also when you go to see the nature? Enough!”

Manrique was a true multidisciplinarian: a painter, sculptor, architect, town planner, ecologist, landscape gardener and campaigner all rolled into one. His most striking legacies are the fantastical attractions he carved into the volcanic landscape in the 1960s and ’70s – the prime example being the Jameos del Agua, a volcanic tunnel turned cultural centre that features a concert hall, two dance floors, three bars, an underground lake filled with blind albino crabs, a swimming pool only the King of Spain is allowed to swim in, and a volcano museum that looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film. It’s a stunning feat of imagination that, almost 50 years later (it was opened in 1966), still feels strikingly fresh.

Manrique was born in Lanzarote in 1919, and died in a car crash in 1992, aged 73. He was born into a reasonably well-off middle-class family, studied architecture for two years, dropped out, and then travelled to Madrid to study art. After graduating, he went to New York, hung out with all the right people, and then returned to Lanzarote as a successful artist with a mission. “When I returned from New York, I came with the intention of turning my native island into one of the most beautiful places in the planet, due to the endless possibilities that Lanzarote had to offer… I made it a point to show Lanzarote to the world.”

With fiery eyes, machine-gun speech and a mischevious grin, Manrique was quite a character. For the 2012 documentary Taro, el eco de Manrique (Taro, the Echo of Manrique), director Miguel G Morales trawled through hundreds of hours of footage, and what emerges is a picture of a man with an almost cultish zeal. “He was a philosopher as much as an architect,” says Morales. “His example is universal yet we still haven’t understood his simple message – in Lanzarote and the wider world, there’s still a battle between his utopian vision and the nightmare of speculation.”

Fernando Gómez Aguilera is the director of the Fundación César Manrique, housed at the stunning Taro de Tahiche, Manrique’s private home between 1968 and 1990, where the pool and living areas are dug out of underground volcanic bubbles.

According to Aguilera: “Manrique was very funny, very enthusiastic, capable of transmitting his passion, very vehement about everything. He was a man of black and white, there were no medium tones for him.”
Yet while Manrique’s passion for the island ran deep, he lived the life of an ascetic workaholic. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, went to bed early and woke up early to run to his studio and begin work. “He was a great boss,” says Santiago Hernandez, one of Manrique’s longtime employees. “He took care of us like his children. If we were working, and he appeared by surprise in the studio, someone would shout, ‘César is coming!’, or ‘the old man’ as we used to call him. The first thing we had to do was hide our cigarettes, sometimes putting lit fags in our pockets. When he saw us smoking he got very angry and said we were losing everything, even our sexuality.”

If there was a monk-like simplicity to the man, there’s a strikingly bold modern beauty to many of his designs: like the Mirador del Río, a 400m high viewpoint built into the cliff overlooking the island of La Graciosa; the Jardín de Cactus, a terraced garden featuring more than 1,000 species of cactus from around the world; or the spaceship-shaped panoramic restaurant in the volcanic Timanfaya  National Park, where you can eat a meal cooked over hot lava.

Manrique’s home and studio for the last few years of his life has also recently been opened to visitors, preserved exactly as it was on the day he walked out of it for the last time. All of these places are littered with Manrique’s sculptures and artworks – as is the whole island, where huge, colourful and intricate Manrique windmills and mobiles pop up on roundabouts and at the sides of roads. In true ’60s style, most of the locations have a cocktail bar and a restaurant serving good, reasonably priced tapas, served by waiters wearing uniforms designed by Manrique himself. Everything has been preserved exactly as the architect designed it, down to the smallest details – there’s not a dodgy ’90s refurbishment in sight.
Even the roads could not escape Manrique’s scrutiny. “He told me many times” says Luis Morales, the man in charge of building his projects, “Luis, the roads must be like if you took a carpet and laid it on the landscape. Take care of the edges, clean them up and cover what the machine damages in order to match them to the environment. And we managed to make it seem like the lava stopped on the road. We had to do things correctly, thinking of the tourists that come here to see what they can’t see in other places.”

So who trusted Manrique, an eccentric artist, with a load of funding and some important geological sites to play around with? According to Alejandro González of the Fundación César Manrique, he could be very persuasive. “They all thought he was crazy. But Manrique was a very intense person, and he had decided this was going his life’s work. Pepin Ramirez, one of Manrique’s childhood friends, had become a prominent politician and together they managed to get permission and funding. The Jameos would have been much cheaper to build then, because the skilled labour and knowledge of handcraft was more readily available. Today it would be impossible.”

After the success of Jameos, it became apparent that perhaps Manrique wasn’t so crazy after all. Gonzalez continues: “At the same time, he was trying to educate the local people to build their houses using traditional techniques, reshaping the landscape as they had for hundreds of years instead of using cheap new materials. They were very sceptical at first, but now when you ask any of the old timers about Manrique they will tell you he is a master, a genius.”

Manrique faced his biggest challenge in the ’80s, when the Canaries really started to become popular as a budget tourist destination. The developers » moved in, and with the power of their wallets began a relentless tide of soulless construction that threatened to destroy everything he had worked for. Manrique began protesting at the building sites, lobbying the government and fighting to resist this development. “I don’t have any kind of patriotic romanticism,” he said in the early ’90s. “I am a citizen of the world, and we have to have a feeling for the future, not a stupid and provincial mentality. I think the most beautiful feeling is to be a citizen of the world. But there is a speculative mafia in Lanzarote I hate from the deepest place of my soul. Even Mussolini would not have allowed this fascist architecture, because it is horrible, terrible! But there is hope. Berlin was destroyed during the war, but it has been rebuilt into an extraordinary city.” The resorts of Puerto del Carmen and Costa Teguise continued to expand regardless of Manrique’s protestations, albeit without the high-rise apartment blocks that have plagued the other Canary Islands.
After his death, the Fundación César Manrique was established to continue Manrique’s work for the island, and in recent years they have brought to light a number of illegally built hotels. But they have not been able to stop the development of Playa Blanca, the island’s third resort, which has expanded rapidly in recent years. “It used to be just a pretty little fishing village,” explains José Amigo, owner of the small, rustic hotel Casona de Yaiza in the middle of the island. “But instead of keeping the old town and developing it outwards, keeping the feel of the traditional buildings and creating high-quality accommodation, they tore it all down and started to build massive hotels. Manrique wanted Lanzarote to be an »  island where there would be a queue to get in – but how can you create that kind of place when you build hotels that have 800 rooms?” González agrees: “If Manrique saw Lanzarote today, I think he would be very sad about some parts of it. But as soon as you leave those parts, the beautiful island he helped to create is exactly as he left it.”

It is hard to disagree. The surprisingly elegant embrace of “intelligent tourism” and lack of traditional mass-tourism tat that embodies the “real” Lanzarote can only lead to the conclusion that César Manrique’s mission was a success, and begs just one question: what other amazing things would he have built if he had lived longer? As Manrique’s employee Santiago Hernandez puts it, “He left the island unfinished.”

Film-maker Matthias Allery conducted the last known interview with Manrique before his death, and says: “What I found amazing about César Manrique was his vitality, how bright he was, much more so than some guys at 20. It was also interesting to see him playing all the time, it didn’t matter what he was doing, he was like a child playing with stones, shells, plants, colours… He had a big power inside him, and I admired him.”
Aguilera, of the Fundación, puts it this way: “César Manrique is inexplicable without Lanzarote, just as Lanzarote is inexplicable without César Manrique. The blood of César is in the island.” 
Norwegian flies to Lanzarote from London, Oslo and Stockholm. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com


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