“Frankly I admit to having had a slight twinge of disappointment – and our two teenage children weren’t wholly enthusiastic about going much further either. Thank goodness we did.….”
Cesar Manrique – artist, sculptor, architect, landscape architect, urban planner and ecologist – made Lanzarote what it is today. And a stay on the island without visiting the home and garden he designed for himself would be like taking a trip to Cairo without seeing the Pyramids. So on a seeringly hot day I found myself, with my family heading to the Fundacion Cesar Manrique, (his house is now an art gallery), to learn some more about the man.
I think I was expecting at the very least a large, maybe even extravagant, mansion displaying ornate works of art in sumptuously planted grounds. So imagine my surprise when I completely missed the place, continued on down the road and then had to retrace my footsteps. Why? Well, to be perfectly honest, from the outside it didn’t look appreciably different to any other property I had passed on the way. The quite modest house had the same thick white walls, wooden doors and shutters you see elsewhere on the island.
And the front garden had the same palm trees, randomly planted aloes, prickly pears and candelabra Euphorbias which give a lot of Lanzarote that half wild, half cultivated look. The rest of the garden was laid bare to volcanic substrate and semicircles of stone which usually shelter vines. Frankly I admit to having had a slight twinge of disappointment – and our two teenage children weren’t wholly enthusiastic about going much further either. Thank goodness we did.
Having seen the tourist devastations that were taking place elsewhere in the Canaries, Manrique was determined that his own beloved island would not suffer the same fate. His role in the sympathetic development of all tourist attractions by ‘showing respect to the environment’ became legendary. It is therefore fitting that his house also sits comfortably within the local vernacular. But from then on it is no ordinary house and garden. Building directly into a lava flow Manrique combined traditional elements of Lanzarote architecture with his own modern conception of space to extraordinary effect.
Using five natural volcanic bubbles as a starting point, he created the lower areas of the house. These bubbles, which are connected by narrow passageways bored into the lava, form the living space of the house-a more inhospitable and infertile terrain on which to build such an ingenious feat of architecture is difficult to imagine. The upper level, formerly the studio, is now devoted to the art gallery. Nowhere is more than two storeys high and, despite the vastness of his genius, the rooms are actually human in scale. Manrique didn’t believe any building should be larger than the average palm tree.
His guiding principle which found its expression in a new aesthetic concept, which he called ‘Art-Nature/Nature-Art’, was always to work in harmony with nature, integrating all his art forms into the personality of the natural surroundings. This responsiveness is shown to spectacular effect as you walk around in the art gallery. You suddenly arrive at an extraordinary picture window which stops you dead in your tracks. You look directly out over his ‘back garden’ – the lava field which descended from Mount Maneje during its eruption in the 1730s. This is the house’s only real view. The touch that allowed the continuation of the lava flow through the window into his house is masterly, making that direct link between the outside landscape and his workspace.
Just as the property closely relates to and respects its context, so house and garden are inextricably linked throughout. This is of course nirvana for a garden designer. The ‘outside room’ we so love reaches a new level here, as inside does truly meet outside, but repeatedly so. You literally have to ‘to go with the lava flow’ – I’m afraid the pun was inevitable! – as you are subtly guided from the upper to the lower level and back again, sometimes moving imperceptibly between house and garden. Royal palm and fig tree centrepieces from the lower rooms grow up through holes in the lava roof…
Sometimes you wonder whether you are actually in the house or the garden. Does it matter? In this climate, and with this designer, the two merge so perfectly together that the individual terms become almost meaningless. The overall effect is just stunning.
Minimal use of landscaping materials throughout lends a wonderful cohesion to the design, which is further enhanced by the arresting juxtaposition of the jet black lava with the dazzling white wall and floor surfaces. Varying shades of lush evergreen foliage against the deep azure blue of the sky provide the perfect complement to the starkness of the building materials. No fussy herbaceous borders displaying a riot of colour here – instead the planting is sculptural, lush, elegant and simple.
This restrained colour palette somehow accentuates the wonderful interplay of light and shadow on the foliage of this papaya tree growing out of a wall,
Repeated plantings of other varieties of cacti and succulents have further textural qualities which lend unity to the design, at the same time paying respect to the island’s arid climate and the property’s location in what could be termed a lava ‘desert’. While at times the planting is dramatic and sculptural, it can also be quirky and humorous – the trio of large, rounded cacti planted in the wall as you step out onto the balcony
Yes, the magic of this place does cause us to reflect upon what is undoubtedly a unique dialogue between art and nature, but you never lose sight of the fact that this was originally a home, however original in style, and it was to be lived in and enjoyed on all levels.
On leaving the studio you take a final flight of steps back up into the sunshine and… a sudden mood change – a formally planted garden dominated by a large mural. Depicting several bulls and designed in the abstract style rather reminiscent of Picasso (who was one of Manrique’s close friends), the mural has been created from an assortment of multi-coloured broken ceramic tiles and provides a final dramatic flourish to the tour. This might seem a rather colourful aberration but it in no way comprises the integrity of the design, since the same basic ingredients of whitewashed walls and black lava (outlining the mural) have provided a constant link between house, garden and the surrounding landscape throughout. Brightly coloured flowers mimic the bright colours of the broken tiles, and a pillar box red bougainvillea scrambles over the archway leading you back to the multi-coloured mobile at the beginning of the tour.
Our children, initially sceptical, were in the end captivated by the experience, so much so that our sixteen year old daughter, not always the easiest person in the world to please, was heard to say ‘Mum, I so want to live here!’. For my part, I still felt that there was a fundamental enigma about the man who had created such an exotic private landscape and yet had lived so frugally, but perhaps this was part of the charm of the place.
It’s now difficult to imagine that we might have driven past and missed a complete gem – not to mention the massive white sculpture in the car park. Yes, this should have been a complete giveaway, but then you see these wonderful Cesar Manrique sculptures wherever you look on Lanzarote.
As we drove away, my eye was drawn to an intriguing roadside mobile in the middle of the roundabout. No prizes for guessing who designed that too. Hail Cesar!
Lesley Hegarty – garden designer and writer