ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G: “César Loved to Dance”

Posted in Actualidad, ESCRITOS-G by ARQUITECTURA-G on septiembre 22, 2015

Conversation betwen José Juan Ramírez (president of the César Manrique Foundation) and ARQUITECTURA-G

Published in Apartamento Magazine #14

Photography by Nacho Alegre

Archival material courtesy of the César Manrique Foundation

Intro:

This time, we’re headed to Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, to visit the houses of César Manrique (1919–1992). For the first time since beginning this series of conversations, we’re going to discuss the work of a figure who has passed away. It is for this reason we find ourselves with José Juan Ramírez, president of the César Manrique Foundation and heir to his work. José Juan knew César first hand, and was lucky enough to share in his experiences and his infinite anecdotes. Beyond a desire to talk about César, which we have had for a long time now, we think it is essential to pay close attention to what we consider one of our country’s most fascinating bodies of work. Extremely personal and written off by many as imprecise, the work of César Manrique has always been placed at the fringes of the academic world. In our opinion, this is yet another reason why he and his work, which was typically built without the use of architectural plans, are so enormously intriguing.

Arquitectura-G:

It all began when César returned from New York to settle in Lanzarote indefinitely. We would like to know the story behind César’s two houses, but let’s start with the first: Taro de Tahíche. We are especially interested in hearing the story of how César came across several enormous volcanic bubbles in the island’s lava landscape, and why he decided to make this cavernous environment his home.

José Juan Ramírez:

I know this story very well: at the very moment that he discovered those bubbles, César and my father were in the car together. César was still living in New Yorkn at the time. In one of his visits to Lanzarote, while driving along the highway, he focused on a point far away, where the crown of a fig tree was sticking out of the lava. You could only see the top part of the tree, not the trunk. He quickly understood that the fig tree was in some kind of hole. He asked my father to stop the car, and went off toward the tree. The tree that he saw is the very same one that remains in the centre of César’s house to this day. I always said that he was like a hunting dog: he was continuously observing everything, paying close attention to details that nobody else noticed.

Arquitectura-G:

We thought that he had planted that tree. Knowing this makes the space even more enchanting.

José Juan:

No, the fig tree was already there. When he arrived at the tree, he thought that it was absolutely beautiful, and then he descended into the hole. I don’t know if you know how these bubbles form in the lava. César used to explain it to people by saying that it was like boiling-hot chocolate that had spilled out of the pan, bubbling away until it solidified, leaving behind these cavernous spaces inside. The hole he found turned out to be the first of the bubbles. He was fascinated by it, and he began to look to see if more holes existed. As chance would have it, there were five in total.
When he saw those spaces, he decided immediately that he would construct his house there. César told the story of how, as a child, he had spent a lot of time looking at colonies of ants and the way they excavated their houses in the earth, connecting the spaces through little passages. It’s exactly what he ended up doing himself, as an adult. During the construction process, the workers laughed and said that he was crazy. We must keep in mind that the technology that was available back then in the late ‘60s was very limited. The connections between the bubbles were made using very small charges of dynamite, and stonemasons went around chipping into the lava, one on each side, shouting at one another to find the midpoints. Afterwards, he constructed a single storey directly above that connected network of bubbles. This part of the house was based on the island’s traditional architecture. The last bubble was connected when the house was converted into his foundation. It was done so that visitors could descend into the bubbles in a more comfortable manner. This last connection was made using more controlled methods. The peculiar thing about the site is that they haven’t found any other place on the island with so many volcanic bubbles within close proximity. You can find one or two, but never five. Furthermore, in the past, if someone did find a bubble, the first thing they would do was cover it up and put something on top, or they would use it to accumulate water. César had already been looking at places in which to build his house, but no other appealed to him as much as this one.

Arquitectura-G:

After the discovery of the bubbles, and the spontaneous decision to construct his house in that very same spot, we imagine that, before construction could commence, he must have had to find out who the land belonged to. Was it for sale?

José Juan:

Let me tell you—it’s a beautiful story. When César saw the terrain, he fell head over heels for it. And he did manage to find out who the owner was. As it turned out, it belonged to a man from Lanzarote. César went to speak to the landowner and asked him if he would sell him that exact piece of volcano. The landowner said that he couldn’t because, in his opinion, it had no value. The man was also a friend of César’s father, and therefore said that he could just take it and do what he liked with it!

The volcanic landscape of Tahíche

Arquitectura-G:

The site’s characteristics have always surprised us a great deal. That, and the fact that he was able to choose a location, and just take the decision to build a house right on top of it. This, of course, would be impossible today.

The house’s stratums: the traditional construction built on top of the volcanic bubbles, Taro de Tahíche (1980s)

José Juan:

Yes, these days everything is highly regulated. But at the time, that kind of land really didn’t have any value; nobody wanted anything to do with it. My grandparents did the same thing: they decided on a location, and that’s where they constructed their house. They were different times, indeed.

The sky and the volcanic bubbles connecting through the living room, Taro de Tahíche (1980s)

Arquitectura-G:

If we focus on the two houses—the one in Tahíche that we’re talking about now, and the one constructed subsequently in Haría—we can take two very different interpretations.  One would be the ‘hedonistic’ house, and the other would be more of a retreat. César used to say that in Lanzarote, thanks to the climate, one doesn’t need anything because one’s basic needs are already covered. You only have to decide where you will sleep, and that will be the place you inhabit, even if it’s outdoors. The house in Tahíche coincides with this reflection quite literally. In fact, the house is not even sealed off from its exterior—it’s completely permeable to the climate, seeing that the bubbles are open to the elements and do not have any type of insulation. The windows work more as membranes than actual enclosures. They’re subtle and basic at the same time: sheets of glass lean directly on the rock or on very simple pieces of wooden or aluminium framing, just enough to hold them. In this sense we perceive that César was very conscious of where he was building and the type of life that the place would permit. We don’t know if he ever commented on this necessity to live in close relation to one’s environment.

José Juan:

He once made a book entitled Lanzarote: Arquitectura Inédita. It catalogued examples of popular architecture in Lanzarote, placing an emphasis on the wisdom of traditional architecture. These were structures that were situated on the land in such a way that they were perfectly adapted to the strong winds that we have here. He extracted important conclusions from this analysis. He always built using local materials, the materials that he had at hand, but he adapted his constructions to new ways of living. For example, he spoke of the importance of the island’s luminosity and the necessity of taking advantage of it. By using different variations of skylights, he opened his constructions to the sky, allowing them to be inhabited for the maximum amount of time without the need for artificial light. This is one aspect that became popular in Lanzarote; it’s something you can see nowadays in the majority of the island’s houses. César always said to me, ‘Look closely, José Juan, human beings spend most of their lives at home. And so, houses must be as pleasing to them as possible’. I remember that he always said that to me. When he was building his houses, this idea was very present. They had to be very pleasing. The two houses are very distinct, and each corresponds to different moments in his life, but it was fundamental for him that they be liveable. He really lived his houses, and he had a lot of fun. He always had visitors. He used each area of the house at some point in the day: to have lunch, to have conversations—whatever he felt like at any given moment, but there wasn’t a corner in the entire house that wasn’t lived in. For example, in the first bubble, there’s a hammock strung up. This was where he liked to take you at night to observe the stars. This is just one story among many, but the way he saw it, his home was the place where he spent half of his life, and for that reason it had to be very harmonious.

César Manrique reading on his circular sofa in the ‘white bubble’, Taro de Tahíche (1980s)

Arquitectura-G:

The characteristic that interests us the most in the first house is this feeling that it gives us of being a house of eternal holidays. It’s a place where all of the spaces embrace you; they are constantly ready and waiting for a get-together. It breathes a festive ambience. We can imagine incredible parties in this house.

José Juan:

He always lived by himself, but then again he always had friends and visitors staying. On top of that, he was the kind of person that loved to throw parties. In time his parties became very popular, and everyone wanted to visit the house—something that became one of the principal motives for him  to build the second house: he wanted more peace and quiet, to disconnect a bit. César lived life to the full, and he always wanted to share his experiences with people. His house was open not only to people that came from abroad, but also to the island’s residents. Many a party was held at the Tahíche house, and it’s true what you say, it was a house that was constructed precisely for that reason: to be enjoyed in a festive atmosphere.

Arquitectura-G:

It really jumps out at you, and one can imagine a multitude of scenes taking place inside: scenes related to that ‘hedonistic’ characteristic that we mentioned earlier. You can imagine having lunch with friends at the table by the pool, or being in the middle of a party of 100 people that extends throughout the various bubbles. Even though they are different, both houses really breathe his personality. Which is to say you can see that both houses belong to a very unique individual. In some ways, the houses became a ‘third arm’: a physical extension of their inhabitant. They are not family homes, nor are they homes that belong to a couple. There is a duality about them that we find very interesting: on the one hand, they are very open spaces, but on the other, they are highly personal.

The upstairs living room, Taro de Tahíche (1970s)

José Juan:

When he lived in Madrid as a young man, he had a partner that died of cancer. This affected him greatly, and he never had a stable relationship again. He was a very social person, but he also had the need to isolate himself every now and again, above all to be able to work, something that he did a great deal of. The house was really his house, and this is evident in all the spaces it is composed of.

An eliptical table near the pool at Taro de Tahíche

In the past, before the modifications that were undertaken to convert the house into the foundation, the house was kind of like an octopus. The house above was its ‘head’, where the central living room was situated. From there, using the spiral staircase (which still exists today), you could descend into the underground world of the five bubbles, each of which was connected by these ‘tentacles’. The spiral staircase was the only way of accessing the bubbles downstairs, so, despite being a large house, the distribution was easily comprehensible. The staircase descended into the red bubble, which was the central bubble. From there, if you followed one ‘tentacle’, you would arrive at the hammock bubble, another would take you to the pool, and the last one would take you to the studio. There, in the studio, he had a very small bathroom. I’m telling you all this because even if he didn’t have any visitors, he always had someone with him. There was the couple that looked after the house and its gardens; so, if he was going to go and paint, he would give instructions that he was not to be disturbed. He’d go to his studio and stay there for the entire day; sometimes he’d even sleep down there. The house was for him alone. In fact, in the initial phase there was only one bedroom. Only later would a second one be constructed to cater for his visitors.

The pool at Taro de Tahíche, inspired by rock pools at the beach in Famara

Arquitectura-G:

This is something that we noticed as well. In his bedroom we can see that there are two king-size beds that sit parallel to one another.

José Juan:

Yes, it’s odd, and it does catch your eye. This was the second bedroom, the one that was built in a later phase of construction. At the beginning he slept in the adjacent room, which ended up becoming the guest room. Keep in mind that he’d just come from New York, and he’d brought with him a strong influence from pop culture, where everything was big and where two king-size beds would fit in one room.

Arquitectura-G:

If we analyse the house, it becomes apparent that César had a very clear plan in his mind. It’s a house constructed on two layers. The first layer is the traditional house that’s been built on top of the second layer, an underground network of bubbles. In this sense, there is a coexistence between the traditional and the extreme avant-garde. Fashion, trends, pure tradition, pop culture, the vernacular: they all live together and are in dialogue with each other. How did César himself coexist with these contrasts?

José Juan:

He stood by the idea that houses in the countryside should be built with respect for traditional proportions, in harmony with what already exists. But then again, he thought that they should be adapted to the times that he had been born into. In this sense, from the outside the house in Tahíche is a house with very beautiful proportions; it doesn’t stand out from the landscape. But its interior is also radically modern. Even now it remains an avant-garde house in many respects.

Above: César Manrique in his Haría studio (1990s). Opposite page: Details of the house in Haría

Arquitectura-G:

It would be a great step forward if houses built today incorporated many of the dynamics that you can find in that house. José Juan: I think that César’s greatest contribution was his ability to combine those two facets. In all of his architectural work, in Los Jameos del Agua, El Mirador del Río, etc, there is evidence not only of a contemporary interpretation of architecture, but of a contemporary interpretation of place and territory, as well.

The fireplace at Haría: the centre of the living room

Arquitectura-G:

Yes, there are certain aspects of his work that are repeated. We find them extremely beautiful. We can see a clear relationship nbetween Los Jameos del Agua and Taro de Tahíche. The very same relationship exists with the land. Whereas from the outside you can only see a traditional building, afterwards you can descend into a rich, organic world of lava and vegetation. In both cases, round dance floors made of shiny marble can be found near the pools. There is such an energetic ambience in both cases. It’s very attractive.

José Juan:

César loved to dance.

Arquitectura-G:

We can picture an artist returning to Lanzarote after having lived a few years in crazy, frenetic New York, who then unites these two opposing ways of living, taking the most beautiful aspects from each.

José Juan:

César always talked about how, as a child, he had very different interests to those of his friends. Interests that led him to have a certain curiosity for things, to the extent of making him feel like he was a strange child. While his friends went fishing, he stayed behind, amazed by the rock pools that formed on the beaches of Famara. If you look closely, the pools that he made throughout his life were always more like rock pools than swimming pools. Early on in his life, he was lucky to meet the Millares family, a family that came to live in Lanzarote for a couple of years. They were very knowledgeable in the arts, and culture in general. It was through this friendship that César came to see that there were other people that had the same curiosities as he did. Later on, under pressure from his father, he began studying engineering. But he soon dropped out and went to Madrid, and from there, on to New York. According to César, it was there where he realised that all the ideas he had had for Lanzarote over all those years could become a reality. He discovered the land art movement, and began to believe that having a more artistic notion of landscape was possible. In 1955, when he built his cactus garden—which, until then, wasn’t much more than a lava field that everyone used as a rubbish dump—he already saw it as a landscape of breathtaking strength, and of a peculiar beauty. He had a strong sensibility for landscape, one which he cultivated over his entire life.

Arquitectura-G:

Both César and the Mexican architect Luis Barragán were derogatorily referred to as ‘gardeners’. It’s funny to see in their biographies and in various interviews that, far from feeling offended, for them it was an honour to be referred to in such a way. We see a lot of similarities between Luis Barragán and César Manrique. Even though they are very different, there are a lot of details that unite them: their use of materials, the proportions of their spaces and the way they relate to one another, the dialogue between tradition and avant-garde, the transitions from hard pavements to soft pavements, and so on. Barragán always maintained that he wanted his houses to look like gardens, and his gardens to look like houses. The house in Tahíche is a perfect example of this condition. You don’t know if you’re inside or out, if you’re in the garden or in the living room. The boundaries of each become very diffused and, just as in Barragán’s houses, you are constantly accompanied by the sound of falling water.

José Juan:

What Barragán said is indeed beautiful. César never got tired of repeating that we are animals, and as such we have to be in harmony with our environments, and must not destroy them. I have another good story: when it rained, César always took off his clothes and went into the rain. He said that it was very healthy, and that we were like plants that come back to life when it rains. He was passionate about gardening. He was even capable of diverting an entire construction path out of respect for a single tree, which he would then integrate somehow into the architecture. Perhaps it was the other way round: the architecture would become integrated into nature. That’s how he gave you the feeling of being in some kind of wild garden when you were in one of his constructions.

A true oasis: the bathroom at the house in Haría

Arquitectura-G:

In this sense it’s very important to understand César’s construction processes. In all of his architectural work you can see a high level of affection and care for detail that is almost impossible to express in an architectural plan. They’re constructions that have been developed day by day, almost as a potter would work a piece of clay. Processes that have been undertaken in direct contact with the master builders, which allowed for these precise variations.

José Juan:

He was always very much in control of his construction processes. My relationship with César began through my father, who was president of the cabildo [an administrative council in the Canary Islands]. They were intimate friends, and they built many things together. I remember visiting construction sites with them each Saturday. I had a great time. As the years went by, and as regulations became stricter, César’s work started to become more problematic. Technical drawings began to be mandatory for everything, and you had to have an architect that would sign off on each project. This was very complicated for the exact reasons you mention: his organic, day-by-day approach. There was a huge gap between the official documentation that was presented and what actually ended up being built. There were always changes. ‘No, no! We must respect such a beautiful stone’, or, ‘Let’s move this just a little bit here or there’. He monitored absolutely everything, and he was in contact with the workers; he liked to know their opinions. He always worked with the same team, and he was very friendly with them. César was tremendously positive and enthusiastic, which was infectious for the people who he worked with. They put in their best because they could see that what he was doing was special, and that they were actively participating in it.

Arquitectura-G:

Here in Tahíche, for example, his decision to spread mortar on the lava in certain areas and then to paint it white (leaving the black stone visible in other spaces), or even the way the house’s wiring was installed: it all reflects a very particular sensibility.

José Juan:

He spent hours observing the construction process. When everyone else had gone home for the day, he stayed behind to sit and observe, meditating on what the best option for this or that would be. He would communicate it to the master builder the next day. No technical drawings exist, for any of his work. This is very important: César didn’t do plans. At most there’s the odd sketch of an idea that came to him at a given moment. The few plans that do exist were done after the fact: they were mere formalities for his records.

Arquitectura-G:

To introduce the second house, the one in Haría, and to put it in context with the first house in Tahíche, we would say that the first responds to a more primitive understanding of how to inhabit a space. A series of interconnected, cavernous bubbles fitted with custom furniture that gives you the sensation that you could sit or lie down almost anywhere. In exchange, in the second house, we find more of a ‘container’ that he covers from floor to ceiling with objects accumulated over an entire lifetime. Garments, books, souvenirs, plants,
and other singular objects are organised in a house that already existed, one that he adapted to his needs. What was the change from one house to the other like for César?

José Juan:

I think that his idea of primitive ways of inhabiting spaces, which you have described, has a lot to do with the desire to live in contact with nature. And this characteristic, even though each house differs in many ways, can be found in both. He bought the house in Haría in the ‘70s. It was in ruins and only really served as a shelter for animals. He liked the place, and the house itself was cheap and quite large, which is why he decided to buy it. As time passed he began to feel the need for a change. The house in Tahíche was very popular, and had a lot of visitors. He didn’t live in it the same way that he had when he returned from New York at 40 years of age. Now he was 60-something, and he wanted more peace and quiet in his life. The idea of creating his foundation started to circulate in his mind, which is to say he began thinking of converting the house in Tahíche. He wanted a change of atmosphere and of landscape, and he found the field of palm trees in Haría particularly enticing. In short, there was a series of factors that, when added up, convinced him to make the decision. But the definitive factor was, without a doubt, the decision to create his foundation. So, the construction of the new house was set in motion. Which wasn’t much more than the partial reconstruction and extension of a ruin. Initially the idea was to build a weekend getaway; it was later on that it became his permanent residence.

Arquitectura-G:

We find that concept of a ‘container’ very interesting. You can visualise the love César had for all sorts of objects. Not only is the architecture itself full of its own subtleties, but each object and detail suggests an intriguing personality and a nuanced mind. When you walk around the house you find yourself surrounded by the most varied objects, like the beautiful bow in the entrance. Which, from what we can tell, had followed him around for a long time.

José Juan:

The house is exactly as it was when he lived there. That I can guarantee. The objects are exactly as he left them. César had a real eye for detail, and anything that caught his eye he kept. There are a lot of objects that don’t have any real economic value, but he liked them and accumulated them anyway. You can also see objects that he found and then converted into other things: lamps made out of wood from old boats, or old bottles. The very same taste that he had for life he also had for the objects that lived with him. Changing the subject, there’s something that not very many people know about this house: César passed away when he was in the middle of constructing the extension.

Arquitectura-G:

We weren’t aware of this. Was the extension ever completed?

José Juan:

César wanted to make an extension to the living room, using this metallic frame. The structure would have covered the pool, bringing it inside the house itself and incorporating it into the living room. The construction had already begun, but when he died, it didn’t end up being fitted. There was a big debate over whether his plans should be finalised and the structure installed, or whether it should be left as it was. At the end of the day we decided to leave everything exactly as he had.

Arquitectura-G:

We think that it was the right decision. From what we’ve discussed, if César had lived longer, we understand that there would have been a lot of variation throughout the construction process. The beauty of his work is precisely that: it can’t be imitated, you couldn’t plan it. It wouldn’t be the same if there were technical plans and a budget that had been defined by a construction company.

José Juan:

The climate in Haría is a lot colder than the one in Tahíche; it has its own peculiar microclimate. That’s why he wanted to cover the pool with the metallic frame, all the while maintaining contact with the exterior, just as he did with his bathrooms.

César Manrique in the main living room of his house in Haría (1991)

Arquitectura-G:

This brings us to an important point: the bathrooms. As we’ve said, the two houses are very different, but if there’s something that connects them, it’s the bathrooms. They are very spacious, overly spacious even. The bathtubs are big—in fact, we could take them to be small interior pools. Pools that have been incorporated into a topography of marble or synthetic carpet. There is a repeated use of mirrors. These are spaces that have been invaded by nature, and they have a great deal of light, but it’s not an aggressive light. It was always tamed by lattices, or filtered by the foliage. They are evocative spaces.

José Juan:

He put a lot of importance into his bathrooms. He always said that the bathroom is the first port of call for a human being after waking up in the morning. That first opening to the day after a night’s sleep must have been very pleasant. Also, they had to be extremely intimate spaces in which you felt relaxed, and where you had time to think. In many ways, a place in which you could isolate yourself. He always looked after his bathrooms meticulously. Even in his commercial work, the bathrooms are always very special.

Arquitectura-G:

They could be a good summary of what César’s work evokes. Aside from the bathrooms, there’s another element that also grabs our attention: the fireplaces. Given the fact that his spaces are always very open to the outdoors, fire exists in them as a primitive source of heat. The fireplaces always have a central position. Seeing as they are built in a warm climate, they take on the function of bringing people together; they generate a central focal point. The only architectural reference that we’ve managed to read from César is the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. His fireplaces are similar. You could say that they hold the same weight in both instances.

José Juan:

It could be. In Lanzarote all sorts of fireplaces exist—of Arabic influence or Byzantine. César drew and catalogued many of them. In fact, the fireplace in the house in Tahíche is a copy of a fireplace in an old house in Haría. If you look closely at the house in Haría, the only place with a TV is César’s bedroom. If you went to his house you would never see one. This idea of gathering together is very important in his houses, and in his life. Fire formed part of that.

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