Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The man saving Lanzarote from rampant development

The man saving Lanzarote from rampant development

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
People visit the Mirador del Rio, a viewpoint created in 1974 by local artist Cesar Manrique, on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. AFP

The man saving Lanzarote from rampant development

Roadside billboards and high-rise hotels are banned on Spain’s holiday island of Lanzarote – a legacy of visionary artist Cesar Manrique, whose birth a century ago is being celebrated this year.

Part of the volcanic Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwestern coast of Africa, the arid island welcomes some three million tourists a year.

But, thanks to Manrique’s influence, it has avoided the same fate as the concrete jungles of the Costa del Sol on mainland Spain.

While there has been a large amount of construction, dwellings on Lanzarote, home to around 150,000 people, largely retain a minimalist simplicity.

They are whitewashed with green or blue woodwork, in keeping with local tradition.

After working in New York as a painter and sculptor, Manrique returned in 1966 to his native Lanzarote, where he built a series of original buildings that merged with the island’s unique landscape and have become part of its attraction.

He also worked closely with the local government on regulations that protected Lanzarote from the ravages of rampant development and encouraged sustainable tourism.

Volcanic bubbles

The efforts to preserve Lanzarote’s natural heritage were acknowledged by Unesco, which designated the island as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1993 – a year after Manrique died in a car accident aged 72.

“I always intended to return, because I knew that on my island there are a series of landscapes that are not normal,” Manrique once said.

To mark the centenary of his birth, Spain’s King Felipe VI inaugurated last month a major retrospective of Manrique’s works at the Caesar Manrique Foundation in the artist’s former home in the town of Tahiche.

The building, built on a lava outflow, uses the lower level of a natural formation of five volcanic bubbles to create a liveable space.

Using dynamite, Manrique opened pathways connecting the five bubbles, which were then converted into rooms with whitewashed walls.

The upper level has sweeping views of Lanzarote’s petrified lava streams and volcanos.

“The relationship between art and nature is Manrique’s genetic axis,” the foundation’s director, Fernando Gomez Aguilera, said, adding that for the late artist, “luxury comes from nature”.

Highly sociable and hedonistic, as a child Manrique liked to draw in the sand on the beach and had the “gift of noticing everything”, his brother Carlos, 94, said.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The swimming pool in the house of Spanish artist and architect Cesar Manrique. afp

Traditional buildings

After moving back to Lanzarote, Manrique quickly formed a bond with Pepin Ramirez, the head of the island’s local government at the time and his childhood friend.

Ramirez provided Manrique with technicians and workers for him to realise his unique building projects, and prioritised the artist’s vision for the island over developing infrastructure.

“It was a political bet; he reversed the order and they won the bet,” said Gomez Aguilera.

Perhaps his greatest project is the Jameos del Agua cave – a lava tube where he created a natural auditorium, swimming pool and restaurant with views over a small lake that is home to a species of blind albino crab found only in Lanzarote.

Another famous work is the cliffside Mirador del Rio and its restaurant views of the neighbouring island of La Graciosa which, like his other buildings, is harmoniously integrated with the natural environment.

Manrique encouraged locals to respect traditional building methods.

“He would go to villages, talk to farmers, and tell them: ‘Your house is beautiful, take care of it, don’t let it crumble, it is good architecture,” said Tonin Ramos, an electrician who worked with Manrique.

Marcial Martin, a former director of a network of cultural centres set up by Manrique, said “people are still aware that their home, their surroundings, must be cared for . . . that environmental awareness is still in force.”

Manrique started developing his projects just as Lanzarote began to develop its tourism sector, which now dominates its economy after centuries of relying on subsistence farming and fishing.

“He sensed that if the island was not controlled, its growth and development would be a disaster,” said musician and painter Ildefonso Aguilar, 74, who worked with Manrique.

While no “original works” have been built on Lanzarote since Manrique’s death, and there is a “standardisation” of building styles in tourist centres, the late artist’s vision for the island has been respected, Marcial Martin said.

“It is a very fragile territory, if you break it even just a little, it is really hard, if not impossible, to restore it. We have to take care of it,” he said.


  • First Khmer woman to pass out of West Point

    The life of a soldier certainly isn’t for everyone. The training is gruelling, the hours long and there’s no room for excuses. On top of that, soldiers must be ready to respond to sudden threats at a moment’s notice. Just ask Sithyka

  • Tourists urged not to skip trip

    The Ministry of Tourism has called on international tourists not to cancel trips to Cambodia, but urged them to adhere to several dos and don’ts when arriving in the Kingdom during the Covid-19 pandemic. The ministry released an eight-point instruction manual on Wednesday published

  • The taxman cometh – Cambodia’s capital gains tax casts the net on individual taxpayers

    In a country where only limited personal income tax existed, the new taxation law beginning January 1, 2021, will make taxpayers out of Cambodians, whether they are ready for it or not About two years ago, a little known amendment was made to Article 7 of the Law

  • Cambodian-American gets Star Trek treatment

    Kevin Ung, a Cambodian-American whose family escaped genocide during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, was recently selected from thousands of applicants to participate in the Television Academy Foundation’s inaugural 2020 Star Trek Command Training Programme, a course intended to give hands-on filmmaking experience

  • Cambodia seeks to be transport hub

    Cambodia is working on several fronts to modernise its transport infrastructure and services, concentrating on opening new international gates to relieve and balance traffic congestion at its borders, Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol said on Thursday. This is part of the Kingdom’

  • Deminers unearth ancient lion statue

    Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) director-general Heng Ratana told The Post on Tuesday that a statue of a lion was found by mine clearance experts while they were digging for a development project. It was sent to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts last