Native Son: César Manrique

The great César Manrique, Lanzarote's most famous native son, enjoys a posthumous status on the island akin to that of a mystical hero, talked about by many lanzaroteños as if he were a close friend. His influence is everywhere, from the obvious, like his giant mobile sculptures adorning roundabouts all over the island, to the (thankfully) unseen: the lack of high-rise buildings and advertising billboards.

Born on 24 April 1919 in Arrecife, Manrique was initially best known as a contemporary artist. Influenced by Picasso and Matisse, he held his first major exhibition of abstract works in 1954 and, 10 years later, his art career reached its pinnacle with an exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. But Manrique's birthplace remained imprinted on his imagination and he returned home in 1966, after his successful US tour, brimming with ideas for enhancing what he felt to be the incomparable beauty of Lanzarote.

He began with a campaign to preserve traditional building methods and a ban on roadside hoardings. A multifaceted artist, Manrique subsequently turned his flair and vision to a broad range of projects, with the whole of Lanzarote becoming his canvas. In all, he carried out seven major projects, which he called intervenciones (interventions), on the island and numerous others elsewhere in the archipelago and beyond. At the time of his tragically early death – at the age of 73, in a car accident near Tahíche's Fundación César Manrique in 1992 – he had several more in the works.

On a grander scale, it was primarily Manrique’s persistent lobbying for maintaining traditional architecture and protecting the natural environment that prompted the cabildo (island government) to pass laws restricting urban development, fuelling a desire for sustainable tourism long before it became a hot topic. The growing wave of tourism, beginning in early 1980s, had threatened to sweep away all before it. But Manrique’s ceaseless opposition to such unchecked urban sprawl touched a nerve with many locals and led to the creation of an environmental group known as El Guincho, which has had some success in revealing – and at times even reversing – abuses by developers. Manrique was posthumously made its honorary president.

As you pass through villages across the island, you’ll see how traditional stylistic features remain the norm. The standard whitewashed houses are adorned with onion-shaped chimney pots and doors and shutters painted blue (by the sea) or green (inland). In such ways, Manrique’s influence and spirit live on, and the centenary of his birth was joyously celebrated throughout 2019, with initiatives such as the renaming of the island's airport as the Aeropuerto César Manrique–Lanzarote.