On this remote hideaway, one of Spain's Canary Islands, dramatic large-scale artworks rival the spectacular volcanic landscape.
Had artist César Manrique never lived, the island of Lanzarote would be a very different place. The easternmost of the Canary archipelago, hugging the African coast but very much a part of Spain, the 37-mile-by-13-mile volcanic isle would still have its extraordinary topography: charred in the west by the violent 1730s eruption of Mount Timanfaya, arid in the south, hilly and green in the northeast. But without the artistic genius and tireless activism of this one man, born here in 1919, the island’s pristine beaches would probably be ringed with high-rise resorts, like those of its neighbors, Tenerife and Gran Canaria. Instead, directly as a result of Manrique’s lifelong fight to save his beloved island from unchecked development, Lanzarote retains its low-rise, low-key vibe.
The island’s unspoiled quality draws nature lovers and sports enthusiasts. Cyclists train on its peaks and in its valleys; surfers congregate at Famara, one of Europe’s best spots to catch a wave; hikers tramp the lunar landscape of Timanfaya National Park. And, again thanks to Manrique, Lanzarote has an added dimension. A pioneer of Spanish abstract painting, Manrique spent two seminal years in New York at the height of the Pop Art movement. Returning home in 1966, he embarked on twin campaigns that continued until his death in 1992: one for regulations to limit the size and styles of new buildings; the other to artfully package Lanzarote’s natural wonders for the delight of visitors.
MAN WITH A MISSION
To this day, Manrique’s artistic vision dominates the island. Look almost anywhere and you may see a monumental sculpture, a sign, a gate, a mural or one of a dozen Manrique-designed sites fascinating to both children and adults. To judge by visitor numbers—more than 1.5 million a year, compared with the year-round population of 140,000—his approach is working. “Manrique reinvented Lanzarote,” says Alfredo Díaz, spokesman for the Fundación César Manrique (fcmanrique.org), which carries on his work of promoting architecture and development in harmony with the natural landscape. “It was a poor island, dependent on agriculture and fishing,” Díaz continues. “Manrique knew that the future would be tourism, and he left Lanzarote with a special cultural heritage.”
You can see Manrique’s work merely by driving around, since many traffic circles are centered on his gargantuan sculptures. It’s great fun to suddenly come upon these kinetic pieces based on geometric abstraction. The perfect place to kick off a Manrique itinerary is just a few miles from the airport at El Taro de Tahiche, the home Manrique started to build for himself in 1968 atop five underground lava “bubbles.” The house, a flat-roofed modernist structure of white stucco, serves as an art museum, displaying works by Picasso and Miró alongside Manrique’s own. Expansive windows overlook gardens of flowering succulents and a vast plain stretching toward a distant crown of extinct volcanoes. On the lower level but with openings to the sky are five chambers carved out of the lava rock and furnished with built-in seating in groovy Sixties style.
Manrique also had a major hand in designing the Gran Meliá Salinas hotel in Costa Teguise. Visitors stop by this ziggurat-shaped 1970s period piece just to gawk at his lava-rock murals in the reception area, his lagoon-like pool and an indoor garden of towering palms (gran-melia-salinas.com).
All of Manrique’s achievements possess a sculptural, sensuous quality and combine art and nature on a majestic scale. (Centrosturisticos.com is the best site at which to learn more about his projects.) Working with blackened lava rock, Lanzarote’s most plentiful commodity, he created sweeping curves, arches and rondelles punctuated by the uncut jagged masses that are nature’s own sculpture. And at every site, appealing amenities—an entry gate, a ticket office, a gift shop, a colorful café—are subtly, often whimsically, integrated into the design. (The best shop is at El Taro de Tahiche and sells a tasteful, well-priced selection of artisanal leather goods and modernist jewelry.)
UNDER THE VOLCANO
The Jameos del Agua, on the northeastern coast, is both a geological phenomenon—skylighted grottoes formed by an ancient eruption—and a massive feat of engineering. To make the site navigable, Manrique created landings and staircases, then added cafés, bars, a museum of volcanic geology and a subterranean auditorium. A few miles away, at the island’s northernmost tip, the Mirador del Río (1973) is both a cliff-side lookout with outdoor telescopes and a cave-like architectural structure that ensconces visitors within a mountain of rock. From a glassed-in restaurant hung with Manrique’s modernist mobiles, you can view colossal banks of lava, frozen in place as it flowed to the sea, and nearby Graciosa Island.
The enchanting bowl-shaped Jardín de Cactus near Guatiza, in an area of prickly-pear plantations, was carved out of a volcanic-ash quarry. It’s both a botanical garden and a masterpiece of landscape design. Wander among 10,000 exotic cacti, marveling at the surreal shapes and textures and enjoying one of the most compelling photo ops you’ll ever find.
Despite its flair, Manrique’s art didn’t enjoy instant popularity among the conservative inhabitants of rural Lanzarote. The Monumento al Campesino (Monument to the Farm Worker), an all-white, 50-foot-tall assemblage of fishing-boat parts, aroused a furor when it appeared at a key intersection near the island’s center in 1968. The discord was silenced by an influential critic’s remark that the sculpture “advanced the cause of modern art by 50 years.” Nearby is the Manrique-designed La Casa Museo del Campesino, displaying vintage farm gear, pottery and textiles. The museum may be a bit sleepy, but its lively outdoor café is reason enough to stop.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The only major Manrique project in Arrecife, the island’s capital, is the Castillo de San José, an 18th-century fortress. Manrique masterminded its rebirth as the Museo Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo, a showcase for works by Spanish and Canary Island artists. Twisting lava-rock stairs lead down to a stylish restaurant with views of the port.
With Lanzarote’s chief aesthetic defender long gone and the number of visitors growing, the pressure to expand is on again. Some fear that a recent spate of illegal building will threaten the island’s quiet and jeopardize its 1993 designation as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. But so far, most new construction follows the native low-rise, whitewashed architecture, with doors and shutters painted deep green.
Among locals, Manrique enjoys almost mythical status. “César Manrique is still very loved,” says Daniel Espino, who helps run not-for-sissies walking tours of the volcanoes (canarytrekking.com) and knew Manrique in the 1980s. “He was a complex man and didn’t have an easy temperament. But he is like a god here.”