Plains of twisted lava and smooth fields of ash: orange, red, brown, but mostly grey, fall away from the rocky heights of Isolte de Hilario. They are punctuated by the fragmented remains of ragged, spent volcanic cones. To the south and north they meet an arable desert, in the west the coast. This soundless landscape seems entirely, virginally, natural – the product of six years of volcanic activity between 1730 and 1736. But this untouched quality is an illusion, maintained by an act of legislation. In 1974, the volcanic remains became the National Park of Timanfaya on the Canary island of Lanzarote, home to ‘mountains of fire’ and ‘seas of lava.’ Timanfaya is the most important weapon in Lanzarote’s impressive arsenal of aestheticised landscapes, specially prepared for the discerning mass tourist.
Visiting Timanfaya is an extraordinary experience. The lava hill of Isolte de Hilario provides both a panoramic view and a starting point. From the car park on its slopes, the visitor wanting to go further has to trade car for tour bus, and exchange individual journey for communal excursion. On board, a sublime soundtrack (combining voice-over with Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’) substitutes for the silence of Timanfaya, and a narrative of resurrected mythologies gives literary and geographical meaning to the impenetrable scenery beyond the windows. Thus Timanfaya’s reality is carefully controlled and maintained – just a thin slice is offered to a tantalised audience. Cleverly dispersed over the island are similar moments of experiential intensity defined by carefully designed landscapes. The everyday reality of Lanzarote is already quite strange to the average visitor - but not beyond easy assimilation into normality. In places like Timanfaya, the exotic is wilfully distilled.
Attracting a mass tourist population requires the construction of environments that are appealing. Different environments attract different audiences – the stereotypical Canary Island atmosphere embodies sun, sea and nightlife (one quite different to the environment described above). Before a tourist environment is developed, research is carried out. In addition to market research, which identifies what the potential tourist desires, there is research into the existing conditions of the place to be developed. For many tourists, climate is important, so hours of sun and amounts of rainfall are important. Potential for the development of popular resources are looked into – cheap labour, accessibility and good beaches are examples. Some tourists require another level of amenity: one that has cultural and aesthetic value, and which exploits a sense of the unique. This culminates in a reformulation of local identity, which is sold to the tourist imagination. The manufacture of this identity requires further research into local histories and traditions, particularly their formal manifestations – these are usually architectural in type, or focused on landscapes given value by association – with an important writer, for example or, in the case of Lanzarote, with sublime geological conditions. This latter type of research was carried out on Lanzarote during the crucial years of its early development as a tourist destination, by a spokesperson – artist César Manrique - with the imaginative latitude to carry it out.
Before the arrival of mass tourism, Lanzarote had a largely rural population dependent on agriculture and fishing. The arid climate, so beneficial in attracting tourists, meant that the potential for agricultural diversity was limited to cochineal, salt and wine production. The island could not support livestock, nor could it support imported and lucrative crops like bananas and tomatoes (which have now become a popular crop with more efficient water management). This meant that, while the population was very poor, the traditional rural landscapes underwent less transformation than other, more fertile Canary Islands. During the 19th and 20th centuries, as the challenge of farming such an extreme environment became insurmountable, large parts of the population found that emigration to the New World was the only option. Lanzarote was also a political backwater – the centres of power in the Canary Islands were Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the Canary Islands’ capital, and, later Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, which became the capital of the Eastern Province (that included Lanzarote and Fuerteventura) in 1927. While Lanzarote’s local Council (Cabildo) had to conform to Province-wide plans, it was also able to define its own interpretation of them. Such was the case with the Development Plans that were drawn up in response to the demand for special tourist environments from the 1960s onwards.
The saving of such a landscape as Timanfaya National Park is representative of the careful management by the island’s Council of the effects of mass tourism on Lanzarote’s social, territorial and economic ecosystems. Local development plans have sought to maintain a symbiotic relationship between infrastructural and urban developments serving the tourist market, and the maintenance of agricultural and other local livelihoods, both in the context of the island’s fragile natural landscapes. These have been based on careful analysis of resources and current conditions researched by representatives of the Island Council. In more recent plans (notably the Island Plan of Lanzarote, 1987), seventeen different types of landscape have been identified, such as those dedicated to the production of cochineal, uninhabited landscapes meriting conservation, and landscapes degraded by urbanisation that need regeneration.
One of the most interesting types is that of unique, man-made, cultivated ground. This includes the La Gería vineyards, which lie on the edge of Timanfaya’s malpais, or badlands. Here, in an almost rainless climate, retaining the moisture of the morning’s dewfall is an essential undertaking in a process of ‘dry-farming’. Black picón – composed of granules of volcanic ash – is the most effective type of soil for this. Each granule acts as a hard sponge, which is more effective that a monolithically water-retaining sandy soil. The ground is arranged in what is called the enarenado method where semi-circular black stone walls, called socos, shelter vines from the winds, and the plants grow in the bottom of funnel-shaped hollows. Walls and hollows are rigidly organised, forming strange black visual fields that are themselves a tourist attraction.
Local government ambitions for tourist development on the island have been qualitative (but not exclusive) rather than quantitative. They have reflected a consciousness of the need to project an image of authenticity and integrity to the visitor for Lanzarote’s tourist industry to have a lasting appeal. Frameworks for development have not been based exclusively on static, backward-looking conservation and restoration, although both approaches are used where relevant. Instead, they have built upon traditional methods of adaptation of the natural environment to determine solutions to the dynamic situations and populations that mass tourism brings. For example, obsolete places once used for agricultural purposes – such as mines for picón – have been transformed into private gardens on one scale, and major tourist locations in some cases. The once austere La Geria area is now tempered by a geography of wine-tasting establishments. A link with an organic understanding of Lanzarote’s natural austerity is very important. An attitude of extracting the most from the natural environment, while respecting and restoring it in some way, is evident in contemporary uses of natural resources - in the paring of water supplies, particularly in local communities, and in the careful collection of energy through wind turbines and abundant solar panels, for example. In 1993, Lanzarote became a UNESCO World Reserve of the Biosphere in recognition of this sensitivity to the natural environment, and control of it as a resource.
In Lanzarote, the past is embodied in these specific methods of engaging with an extraordinary and unpredictable natural environment. One commentator on Lanzarote’s architecture goes even further in stating that, ‘‘the production of distinct mutations that do not conserve essential aspects of the past results in monsters, as much for loss of genetic information as for loss of tradition.’ On Lanzarote, and all the Canary Islands to a certain extent, vernacular solutions are responses to deprivation over time, and contain an intrinsic knowledge of the environment. Examples are the vineyards of La Gería described above, or the development of a salt industry that exploited the island’s aridity, or even the novelty of camel trains that now parody the desert landscapes of the malpais. It can be argued that these solutions work at a deeper level than the social constructs of ritual and tradition, and are robust enough to evolve and embody within them new functions and requirements – such as those of mass tourism.
The reflective relationship with its own peculiar vernacular that is evident in Lanzarote’s landscapes today first became prevalent in debates about the physical environment at the moment when mass tourism became a conceivable reality on the island. At this point, a new self-consciousness about the aesthetic value of Lanzarote’s landscapes came into being. As early as 1957 a local historian noted that the beautiful view from an old military lookout point on the most northerly Caleta de Famara was worthy of a wider audience. The fact that this audience existed, with the means to reach such a remote point and the time and the inclination to do so, meant that the population of Lanzarote was already dependent on more than agriculture for its livelihood.
Returning to Isolte de Hilario after a coach-trip around Timanfaya the visitor encounters the ‘El Diablo’ [the Devil] restaurant, a work by the key author of Lanzarote’s tourist identity – artist César Manrique (1919 – 1992). Synonymous with his interventions into Lanzarote’s landscapes, Manrique has become a symbol of Lanzarote as revered landscape within the imagination of the cultivated tourist. The Tate (Great Britain) co-organises a seven-day tour to Lanzarote, accompanied by one of its curators. The highlights of each day are visits to Manrique sites. As the tour website explains: “Lanzarote’s most famous son, the landscape artist, César Manrique enjoyed international acclaim in the modern art world. Fascinated by man’s relationship with nature, he was concerned with the impact of mass tourism was having on the Canaries and was eager [to] avoid ‘concrete jungles’ on his beloved isle.”
An oft-cited example of this aversion was Manrique’s reaction to the Gran Hotel Arrecife, a twelve-storey skyscraper (for which he, paradoxically, painted murals). According to mythology, this revelatory confrontation with the tower, on his return from New York in 1968, led to the control of all new structures (except church towers) taller than a canary palm tree, and the visual management of new roadside hoardings and electricity cables. The strategy for the latter highlights the difference between the new realm that the tourist inhabits, and local towns like Teguise, where picturesque electricity cables are considered sufficiently part of the vernacular. Despite Manrique’s disapproval of alien architectural references (in a late interview he said “I do not like the architecture of Neimeyer because he turns his back on nature” ) various projects from the 1960s survive, such as the seaside Hotel los Fariones, 1964, by Manuel Roca.
For Manrique to become a symbol in this way, the reality of his practice and role in the definition of tourist Lanzarote has had to be simplified and mythologised over time. The manufacture of his biography has produced a relationship between the man and the island that reflects that of his constructed landscapes with their sources, both geographical and cultural. Born in the capital of Arrecife, he spent his childhood on the wild western Atlantic coasts. His home looked out over the dramatic volcanic cliff edges of Caleta de Famara, with its military lookout station. His childhood friends included Jose (Pepín) Ramírez Cerda, a local politician in the making. As a youth, he studied as an aparejador (architectural technician) in Tenerife, but left to go to the Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes in Madrid to study painting. Many years later, in 1965, he went to New York. During his stay, he began to correspond with Ramírez, then President of the Cabildo, about projects in Lanzarote. Amongst these was the ongoing project for the Mirador (lookout) del Río initiated1964. This was to be sited on the Famara cliffs, and ultimately constructed to architect Eduardo Cáceres and Manrique’s designs in 1973.
In 1968, Manrique returned to Lanzarote, having been away for twenty-three years. Distances in time and geography enabled him to view Lanzarote with a critical and cosmopolitan perspective. His eyes already saw with the vision of the privileged tourist, and the new synthetic realities that he began to construct relied on this facility. ”One has to teach how to look” he is quoted as saying. Soon after returning to Lanzarote, he began his process of critical looking in a survey of the vernacular architecture and traditional cultures of the island. His findings were published in a book called ‘Lanzarote, Arquitectura Inedita’ (Lanzarote, Unknown Architecture) in 1974, written jointly with the critic Juan Ramírez de Lucas. The architectural types recorded in the books were deliberately aligned with the island’s geology. This approach is different to the one taken in other publications of that period concerned with similar issues, such as Bernard Rudofsky’s ‘Architecture without Architects’ (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964) and Venturi and Scott Brown’s ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ (Cambridge: Mass., London: M.I.T. Press, 1972). Where Rudofsky, Venturi and Scott Brown were interested in the relationship between cultural traditions and architectural form, for Manrique (at least on the surface) architectural form was a direct response to a specific physical environment defined by an arid volcanic ground. Manrique’s research also looked at culturally related building types – military architecture (the basis for his renovation of the Castillo de San José as Lanzarote’s International Museum of Contemporary Art), and religious architecture, both in a more formal and less reflective way than the other authors.
Manrique’s recording of the island’s vernacular became useful in various ways. One of these has been to define the agricultural past and the life of the peasant as content for tourist attractions. Manrique had already built his Monumento Fecundidad al Campesino Lanzaroteño, near Mogaza, when he published this book. This is the first of a series of wind sculptures that he constructed at various points around the island, some of which also mark related tourist venues. It is made from found objects, and represents the inventiveness of the peasant worker as he struggles to derive fertility from an arid ground. Adjacent to the monument is the Casa Museo del Campesino, an idealised farmstead that conserves and displays the artefacts, buildings and spaces that described a generic (at least historically) peasant life.
Manrique’s ‘El Diablo’ Restaurant on Timanfaya’s Isolte de Hilario is sited on a flat plinth amongst a small complex of service buildings. Like many of his projects, his intervention was precursor to the tourist attraction associated with it. The restaurant was constructed in 1970 - four years before the area became a national park. As in all of Manrique’s work, it is the concept of an environment, rather than the technical and practical making of a building itself, that is his work. Manrique designed the ‘El Diablo’ motif, which is introduced to the visitor’s consciousness at the very edge of Timanfaya. By the time the restaurant itself is encountered the image has been reproduced many times - on leaflets, in guidebooks and on trinkets from the gift shop. The conditions of the site are used to optimum, but tasteful, effect. Meat is barbecued over an open pit, specially housed in the curve of a black tufa wall. The rising heat of rocks at 400°c just a couple of metres below the surface cooks the meat, and highlights the extraordinary state of the ground. Steel columns and plates in the floor conduct heat from below to heat the space, and huge windows take in the polychromatic lava plains. Everywhere an easy glamour pervades, there is a carefully defined luxury – of space, of materials, of a controlled aesthetic.
Anyone visiting a Manrique site, however big the group they are in, feels that they have been invited somewhere special. The ingredients of this experience are elusive. Everything is immaculately clean and ordered, and everything is a little bit strange. In these environments where particular epochs of the islands geological past have been reified for leisured enjoyment a lost world is inferred – not a natural one, but one where to be a tourist was to belong to a privileged class, a jet-set. Early sites evoke imaginary worlds – heaven on another planet, or the spectacular sets from a James Bond film. Two places in particular retain this film set quality; both were early projects inhabiting chains of underground caves formed in lava rock. Jameos del Agua was constructed in an old mine in 1968, and the long-running project of his own house (from 1992 the Fundación César Manrique) was begun on the lava fields of Teguise at the same time.
A visit to Jameos del Agua begins with a descent into a large underground cavern, and then skirts the edges of a deep black pool inhabited by blind white crabs indigenous only to this water. Once through this first dramatic space a series of small staircases and hidden niches pass by a bar and lead into a garden sunk into lava cliffs. Looking back is to view a scene from the film ‘Apocalypse Now,’ looking ahead is to take in a vision of 1960s cool. A very blue pool dominates the space, guides report that only the King of Spain is allowed to bathe in it. Natural, but distorted objects – trees, rocks, and shrubs – float dreamlike on a luminous white ground. To absorb this vision, visitors move toward the seats around the gardens edge; these are arranged in nightclub groupings. The floor of the garden is meticulously organised, defining zones of access by grades of smoothness – the white pool’s edge, which doesn’t welcome dirty feet, gives way to flat paving or smooth cobbles. Then swathes of loose grey stones connect the seats around the edges. Shallow pools guard slippery slopes. At the far end of the garden Manrique opened out an entrance to a vast underground cavern in 1974, transforming it into an auditorium. The swoop of a monolithic stair leads to upper bars and seating decks, to which a later museum that describes the islands volcanic geology has been added.
Manrique’s house presents a landscape for a different kind of privileged visitor. Where Jameos del Agua was clearly designed for discerning night clubbers, his own house was where he entertained guests. His search for a site was defined, in his own words, by nostalgia – a desire to recreate an aesthetic feeling from his childhood. The location he chose was unusual – set upon the edge an impassable sea of lava. The centrality of this place in the Manrique mythology means that it has many stories surrounding its creation. A typical one is that of his discovery of the underground world he invented beneath the white modernist-vernacular house where his studio and living quarters were housed. Finding the top of a fig tree peeping above the rocks, he climbed down it to discover one of five subterranean ‘bubbles’ caused by gas pockets trapped in the lava as it cooled. Each of these underground rooms, some partially open to the sky, are decorated with the same aesthetic control evident at Jameos del Agua and the El Diablo Restaurant. As at Jameos del Agua, a promenade is disguised as a labyrinth, and the visitor progresses from one intimate space to the next through white tunnels of painted lava.
A visitor to Lanzarote can still inhabit a world untouched, if not muted, by the influence of Manrique. Ballardian enclaves of tourist semi-urban development do exist in the three main coastal resorts of Playa Blanco, Puerto del Carmen and Costa Teguise. In these places, a new vernacular is defining itself, which in part draws from the genetic continuity that Manrique is credited with securing. One of the most important characteristics of these places, in contrast to contemporary developments on other Canary Islands, such as the Playa de las Americas on Tenerife, is that each centre has an identifiable public realm. The connections between the private realms of apartment and hotel complexes have a visual and material integrity that is lost on other islands, where often the holiday complex managers decide on the paving of the strip adjacent to them, and the level of access. Communal and local control of the environment is restrained. On Lanzarote, this is not the case. A careful symbiosis between the economies of plenty (tourism/simulation) and deprivation (agriculture/authenticity) is measured out. Lanzarote has been compared to Cinderella, transformed for the ball. Its burnt volcanic land has been reinvented by the imaginative energy of Manrique into a wonderground; the challenge is to keep the twelfth hour at bay.