César Manrique: The Artist Who Created Tourist Attractions To Avoid Mass Tourism

When defining the magical island of Lanzarote (in Canary Islands, Spain), one must have in mind its volcanic landscapes, its rich gastronomy and delicious wines, and also César Manrique.

César Manrique

Born in Lanzarote in 1919, César Manrique developed a predilection for the arts at a very early stage of his life. His practical point of view and love for his hometown translated into a body of work that completely reshaped the image of the island: the landscape became his canvas, the volcanic tones his palette, and architecture, sculpture and painting his mediums.

However, it was architecture above all that allowed him to consolidate his work, providing him with the perfect medium to perform the equation of art-nature and achieve results that are a true example of the harmonious relationship between man’s intervention and nature.

Manrique spent his childhood in Famara, a town in Lanzarote with paradisiacal beaches and a very laid back atmosphere where Manrique spent his time among surfers and easy-going people. This idyllic ambience would play a core role in his commitment to protect and exalt the natural heritage of the island.

Famara Beach. Source: turismolanzarote.com

In the mid-sixties, Spain experienced a tourism boom that skyrocketed the construction of hotel complexes and skyscrapers all over the country. The tourism development was going through its breaking point when César Manrique returned from New York, where he had exhibited some of his abstract works and hang out with some of the most eccentric artists of the time such as Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Fearing that mass tourism would reach Lanzarote, as was already happening in other islands of the archipelago such as Gran Canaria and Tenerife, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

His resolute attitude drove him to participate in protest marches and confront those who led the tourism business. He closely worked with the local authorities to create tourist attractions around the island that would blend the traditional architectonic style and the natural resources, with the aim to exalt the natural heritage of the island without impacting it.

This is how the most impressive attractions of Lanzarote were created. Since then, every corner of the island has been infused with the personality of this bright-eyed artist and activist. As well as preserving the islands natural wonders, his activism has brought about a cultural change and created awareness of its precious natural treasures.

Los Jameos del Agua (1966) was the first wonder Manrique built in the island, and also the first Centre for Arts, Culture and Tourism he designed. It is for many, the paradigm of Manrique’s aesthetic ideal; the harmony between nature and artistic creation.

This extraordinary and complex subterranean space is located nearby the sea, in an extensive and unique landscape formed by the lava eruptions emitted by the Corona volcano in the 1730s. The space develops in a large volcanic tube that contains several “jameos” (volcanic tubes with fragmented covers) and other contiguous zones, among which is the “Jameo grande”; a breathtaking space, almost hidden in the depths of the earth, where a lake of still waters flows giving shelter to the blind crabs or “Jameitos”, a native crab species that only exists in Los Jameos del Agua, and therefore is highly endangered.

For this project, César Manrique counted on the collaboration of architect Eduardo Cáceres and Jesús Soto, and together they cleaned and recovered a natural unique space that was being used as a rubble deposit. This is a brilliant example of space intervention, with the goal of recovering and giving use to the landscape for public enjoyment. This work highlights the concept of integration and “total art”.

Cave at Los Jameos del Agua. Source: turismolanzarote.com

One of Manrique’s most representative architectural creations is El Mirador del Río (The River Lookout), raised 400 meters above the sea level on the Risco de Famara (Famara Cliff). This spectacular lookout is located in the vicinity of a military battery of the 19th century, camouflaged amongst the rocks. It is one of the best examples of Manrique’s ideal of art-nature.

The name comes from the fact that El Mirador overlooks what they call “El Río”; the narrow sea area that separates Lanzarote from the eight island of the Canarian archipelago, La Graciosa, that inspired the world-famous novel The treasure island by Robert Louis Stevenson. This island has no roads or cars, only clearwater beaches and spectacular sea fauna. Not bad.

Manrique fell in love with this cliff and its scenery after coming back from participating in the Spanish Civil War, and decided he was going to build a restaurant on it that would offer the most breathtaking views of the island (and probably, of the world), and so he did.

A spiral staircase will bring you from the restaurant to the top of the building, where you won’t even notice you are standing on top of the lookout as it is camouflaged amongst the rocks. Now take some pictures, breathe some fresh air, dream about living in the peaceful island of La Graciosa and take your Fiat rental car to the next marvel of this genius.

El Mirador del Río. Source: escapadarural.com

El Monumento al Campesino o Monumento a la Fecundidad (Monument to the Farmers or Monument to Fecundity) is another of Manrique’s gifts to the islands. The 15 metre sculpture represents a farmer riding a pack animal. It was erected in 1969 as a tribute to all the men and women who worked the land with much effort and sacrifice.

Monumento al Campesino. Photo by Tomás Morales / loquemiojonove.com

This artwork is complemented by La Casa-Museo del Campesino (the House-Museum to the Farmers), an old farmhouse restored and enlarged by the artist, with which he sought to safeguard the Canarian architectural style. An example of avant-garde and modern art that Manrique so masterfully blended with the natural landscape.

The house-museum offers visitors a full taste of Lanzarote’s traditional architecture, gastronomy, agriculture and craftwork. Built to simulate a traditional village, it has almost everything you need in life: good Canarian cheese, their internationally famous mojo sauce (consisting of olive oil, water and local pepper varieties), and welcoming people that will invite you to taste their delicious homemade jams or to have some shots of Canary Honey-Rum first thing in the morning.

La Casa del Campesino. Source: visualcreativa.com
La Casa Del Campesino

The island of Lanzarote is famous for its volcanic appearance, and home to the natural park of Timanfaya, a land of high volcanological value and mysterious legends. One of the most famous ones tells the story of Hilario, a hermit who in the company of his dromedary inhabited a volcano for over 50 years, and in it he planted a fig tree that never bore fruits. In such arid location one can’t be sure what Hilario lived on, but one sure thing is that nowadays he wouldn’t have any trouble finding nourishment, and that is thanks to Manrique’s vision.

In Lanzarote’s most distinctive area Manrique gave free reign to his restless mind and devised the restaurant El Diablo, that would give the paramo life. From such extraordinary integration between human creation and nature was born what is undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking venues probably in the world. A place where magic happens everywhere thanks to the land’s hypnotic earthy colour palette, and to the magnetic atmosphere that surrounds it.

An added value to this stunning venue is the fact that this restaurant’s ovens use the natural heat from the earth - which boils at almost 300 ℃ only ten meters beneath our feet - to make their delicious local dishes. The smell of roasted chicken will follow you until you can’t help but having a piece.

El Diablo Restaurant. Source: elpais.com

After enjoying an amazing lunch at El Diablo, there’s nothing better than to go for a pleasant walk through what was the last of Manrique’s great interventions: El Jardín del Cactus (The Cactus Garden), through which he permanently stated his love for nature.

In this case, the artist turned a vast arid extension of land into a home for cactus varieties from all over the world. Currently more than 4.500 specimens from 450 different cactus varieties cohabit in this garden, whose greenness contrasts with the blue of the sky and the black of the volcano to create a harmonious explosion of color. A true oasis where only insects and birds break the reigning silence.

Jardín del Cactus. Source: Wikipedia

Probably the most sophisticated and the least known place conceived by the master in Lanzarote is LagOmar, an oasis of Arabic inspiration built on a volcanic quarry taking advantage of labyrinths and natural caves, named after the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. This is an example of a dynamic space, that has kept evolving and growing since Manrique first designed it, always respecting the original artistic style.

Back in the 70s, Omar Sharif came to Lanzarote to shoot the film The Mysterious Island based on the book L’Île Mystérieuse by Jules Verne. There are different stories that connect Sharif with this venue, but the most spread one tells that once he discovered the house he immediately fell in love with it and bought it. However, only two days after the actor had acquired this wonderful site, San Benady, the agent who sold it to him, would have wanted to recover it desperately.

LagOmar. Source: lanzaroteguide.com

Knowing Omar’s love for gambling, Benady would have challenged him to a game of Bridge hiding the fact that he was the European champion. As was expected, the agent ended up recovering his old property. It’s been said that this story was made up by Benady as a promotion strategy, using Omar Sharif’s fame to sell real estate in Nazareth.

In the 90’s LagOmar was transformed into a spectacular pub with multiple areas that offer different ambiances and music styles to the visitor (electronic music, house music and chill out). This is possible thanks to the many nooks that form this place, located in small caves with natural wooden padded seats. The magical terrace stands in between the restaurant and the pub, like a true oasis filled with lush vegetation that reflects on the glimmering pool. A true delight for the senses where to enjoy a stunning environment, and amazing mojitos!

LagOmar's terrace

César Manrique wasn’t only an integral artist (painter, sculptor and architect), but a deeply committed man, a great communicator and educator, and a visionary who was ahead of his time.

His critical thinking, his view of the uses of the landscape, his perception of the importance of a responsible evolution of tourism, and the work he did towards a sustainable development of the island were in his time predictions of realities that we are facing nowadays.

"There is a magic message which is dictating to me what I must do ... it’s not me, it‘s an energy from elsewhere. I believe there is a superior intelligence living somewhere in the magnificence of the universe..."

César Manrique

About the Author

Natalia Loungou is a hyperrealist artist based in Madrid, who in addition to exhibiting her art on Artzine also collaborates as a writer for The Zine. She felt inspired to write this article after traveling to the Canary Islands and falling in love with its people, their culture, and with César Manrique’s architecture. She though writing about it would be a great way to keep learning about it all and somehow prolong that marvelous travel.

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