How a Surrealist Architect Saved Lanzarote

César Manrique embedded his buildings in the land rather than develop over it

by Tom Morris; photos by Ana Cuba
Feb 1 2016, 9:31am

Photo: Ana Cuba

The most unwelcoming and extreme landscapes often through up some of the most interesting architecture. Think of the overgrown lush rainforests of Brazil, and the modern, wooden rectilinear boxes that the likes of Oscar Niemeyer and Marcio Kogan have made room for in them; think of the minimal, robust huts that sit on the tundra in Scandinavia. Think of the igloo. Builders and architects have always embraced a challenge, and the stranger the site, often the most brilliant the result.

The black volcanic land mass of the Canary Islands. Photo: Ana Cuba

It’s no surprise then that the work of César Manrique was so imaginative and so peculiar, growing up as he did on the Canary Islands, that strange flotilla of black volcanic land mass that rises up out of the Atlantic. The architect-cum-artist was born on Lanzarote in 1919 and— apart from stints fighting for Franco during the Spanish Civil War and some years living in New York in the mid 1960s—was dedicated to its landscape.

Manrique loved the dark soil and black sand and thought it “one of the more beautiful places on the planet,” as he described to a friend when he was homesick in New York. It was this love that helped define his unique architectural style, one that defines the Canary Islands to this day: he loved the land so much he simply embedded his buildings in it rather than develop over it.

“To this day, no building can be higher than three stories following his decree – if only the Costa del Sol had paid attention”

Quite literally: his first major architectural project was the Los Jameos del Agua, a grotto in north eastern Lanzarote. He expertly made a “building” simply out of what nature had provided: caverns and collapsed volcanic tubes. And this was to set the precedence for the rest of his career.

Manriques' first major architectural project 'Los Jameos del Agua'. Photo: Ana Cuba

The house he designed in 1968 was immersed into the lava field in the village of Tahíche. A fig tree had been growing out of the volcanic remains when he found the site, and it proved to him how human life should be in harmony with nature, rather than bulldoze across it. Rooms were positioned in lava bubbles, with the gleamingly white man-made constructions slipping seamlessly, confusingly, into the astrological ground.

Throughout his life he slid and slipped between architecture and art – and nowhere that line more blurred than in this project. Manrique worked hand in hand with the Surrealists back on the mainland, and those relationships are clear in the flashes of colour and the sheer eccentricity of the built environment here in Tahíche.

After his death in 1992 the house was converted to the César Manrique Foundation. Photo: Ana Cuba

The house was converted into the César Manrique Foundation after his death in 1992 and remains one of his finest legacies. He’d also be proud of the lessons he taught the governors of Lanzarote: to this day, no building can be higher than three stories following his decree (if only the Costa del Sol had paid attention). Manrique’s stylistic footprint is left all over the Canary Islands: he had many protégés, and they loyally created surreal constructions out of the landscapes of Fuerteventura, Tenerife and Gran Canaria too.

César Manrique designed the gardens and pool at the Hotel Meliá Salinas. Photo: Ana Cuba

Manrique created a vernacular style out of an environment that, at first, seems at odds with human life. Lanzarote’s landscape is a magical but cruel one. It’s dry, rough, brazen, with a beauty that stands out if only for its sheer weirdness. But Manrique loved it. When he was living in New York, he also wrote to his friend: “I feel true nostalgia for the real meaning of things. For the pureness of the people, for the bareness of the landscape. There is an imperative need to go back to the soil. Feel it, smell it.” All these elements are very much palpable in Lanzarote and they are framed, instead of crushed, by the little architectural and artistic love letters he gave to his homeland and that decorate its backdrop it to this day.

Manrique expertly made a “building” simply out of what nature had provided: caverns and collapsed volcanic tubes. Photo: Ana Cuba

César Manrique Foundation