In the tracks of an environmental pioneer

Carlos Carabaña

It was in September of 1992. César Manrique was 73 years old and had just walked out of the building of the foundation that bears his name, in his native Lanzarote. He was returning to his home when a Jeep came out of a crossroads and struck his car, a Jaguar. Trapped in the wreckage, that was the end of the life of the painter, sculptor and architect who had shaped that island in the Canaries and, in spite of his car, was a pioneer in Spanish environmentalism.

Born in 1919 in Arrecife, in the eastern part of Lanzarote, into a middle-class family, Manrique soon showed a talent for art, especially drawing, and admired avant-garde artists like Picasso, Matisse and Braque. He was 17 when the Spanish Civil War broke out and he enlisted in the Francoist side. According to his official biography, when he came home three years later he took off his uniform and burned it on the rooftop of his house.

Then he followed his career as an artist. He studied for two years in La Laguna before moving to Madrid, where he studied Fine Arts at the San Fernando Academy. It was here that he met Pepi Gómez, whom he would later marry, and artists like Francisco Echauz, Francisco Farreras and José María de Labra. He had several exhibitions, taking part in the mythic first showing at the Clan gallery in Madrid in 1954.

In 1963 he suffered a terrible blow. Pepi died and he was devastated. Following the advice of a therapist, he looked for a change of scenery and moved to New York for two years, living a bohemian life with Latin American artists. He earned a scholarship to an arts foundation, painted large canvases, and slept with a man for the first time. But what marked the rest of his career was homesickness: he realised he couldn’t live without his native Lanzarote.

“There’s a pressing need to go back to the land. To touch it, smell it. This is what I feel,” he wrote. “When I came back from New York, I intended to turn my native island into one of the most beautiful places on the planet, in view of the infinite possibilities Lanzarote offered.”

It was the middle of the 1960s, when Spain was developing as a tourist power, and Manrique’s first works were the Jameos del Agua and the Taro de Tahíche. The first, finished in 1968, was carried out in a jameo, a volcanic tube created by the flow of lava. Manrique applied architecture to create what many people consider the essence of his work: the embrace between nature and human beings. He called his aesthetic philosophy art-nature/nature-art, and became one of the greatest proponents of public art in Spain.

His great artistic alliance was with the architect Fernando Higueras, after they met by chance while buying some canvases in Madrid and with whom he travelled through Lanzarote in 1962. After returning to his island, the collaboration between the two artists began in 1973, with the Mirador del Río, excavated from a cliff. During that decade and the 1980s they continued to work together. Manrique, who was not an architect, relied on his intuition to express opinions.

In his work he created vantage points and gardens, upgraded run-down spaces, reshaped coastal areas… in all of which he established a dialogue between modern and traditional architecture. Examples: the Lago de la Costa de Martiánez, the Mirador de La Peña, the Cactus Garden, Playa Jardín… An example outside the Canaries is the Centro Comercial La Vaguada, in Madrid, the first large shopping centre in the capital, in which Manrique integrated resting places with waterfalls and fountains, and light entered the building through the roof.

The Portuguese writer José Saramago, who moved to Lanzarote in 1991, spoke of César Manrique as “the man who rescued Lanzarote from the aggression of neglect, recovering for those who knew how to see what is most beautiful on this beautiful, dry island… He bequeathed  a certain way of life, which nurtured nature with the care of someone who is moving a vulnerable and venerable body.”

The documentary film Taro: El Eco de Manrique reflects the personality of this man, who in 1978 won the World Prize for Ecology and Tourism. The island of Lanzarote cannot be understood without his work, and while he had many enemies who criticised his iron grip on the island’s  aesthetic imagery, without him Lanzarote would not be what it is today.

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