The architecture of César Manrique in sketches

The architecture of César Manrique has a labyrinthine character intentionally sought by the artist, who manages to keep the spatial surprise of the work throughout his visit. This fragmented character of the works also translates into the difficulty of capturing them photographically in order to transmit a global understanding of their spaces.

To facilitate the analysis of the works by visitors and specialists, the book César Manrique, Territorial Acupuncture in Lanzarote employs drawing as a widely used element to help understand and analyze complexity in the practice of architecture. For this reason, the book includes numerous freehand schematic drawings to accompany the text.

A selection of these drawings is presented below:

Text on the analysis of César Manrique’s architecture through drawings, published in the magazine EGA


The development of Lanzarote is frequently associated with the figure of the local artist César Manrique, and in particular with his contributions from the early 1960s until his death, in 1992. Manrique was a visionary, who knew how to anticipate the hidden potential of the island. However, the fact that Manrique developed his architecture without an official title of architect and within a reduced insular context, far from the large population centres, did not help to spread his work outside the local sphere. Until the appearance of the research analysed here – translated into a doctoral thesis (Scarpa, 2018) and a subsequent book (Scarpa, 2019) – Manrique’s influence on the development of the island had not been the subject of any complete scientific study.

A first phase of this study consisted of presenting the buildings of Manrique in detail —and in particular the seven Art Centres in Lanzarote— in order to analyse them subsequently. The present article concentrates on that latter section, as it required a greater capacity for analysis and communication through graphic media.

In parallel, part of the research consisted of obtaining the testimony of architects familiar with Manrique’s work in Lanzarote at first hand, summarising their contributions here and in particular those concerning the object of this study. The relevance of these testimonies is supported by the prestige of the interviewees, including three Prizker prizes:

  • Frei Otto, who knew Lanzarote and its Art Centres accompanied by his friend César Manrique. Otto defined Manrique as a “philosopher of architecture”, from whom he accquired a vision of the environment. For Otto, “what [Manrique] did has been important for the whole world”, hoping “that his spirit will continue alive” (G. Morales, 2012).
  • Jacques Herzog, who has a direct knowledge of the Canarian environment and of Manrique’s intervention in Lanzarote. The Swiss architect’s studio has created what is now recognised as an important cultural focus in the region, the Tenerife Espacio de las Artes. In addition, Herzog acknowledges “to have a Canarian part”, since he designed a personal residence there that often takes him back to the islands. Regarding Manrique’s intervention in Lanzarote, Herzog highlighted the interest of his urban influence, favouring the homogenisation of the white facede-colour and small volumetries (Scarpa, 2014).
  • Álvaro Siza, who visited the Art Centres of Lanzarote in company of his friend, the writer José Saramago, together with members of the César Manrique Foundation. In the course of the interview, Siza focused on the architectural values of Manrique’s work, which he demonstrated to know. For Siza, “César Manrique was not an architect, but he practiced architecture”. In his opinion, the artist developed “a work of multiple objectives” whose ability to “create essential relationships between arts, thinking and architecture”, between “what is organic and what is geometric” without rigid boundaries, gives it “a contemporary interest”. Analyzing Manrique’s works, Siza referred to the theatrical sequences that accentuate surprise, which claims to be “the substance of architecture”. This “control of the itinerary” would be developed in the Art Centers mainly through a variation of “the relationship between the interior and the exterior, with the landscape (…) [that] then disappears to appear later” (Scarpa, 2015).

Photographic analysis of the works

César Manrique’s architecture has a labyrinthine character intentionally sought by the artist, who surprises by means of a design that doses the perceptive experience, keeping the suspense of the work and postponing to the maximum its full comprehension. This translates into a fragmented nature of the works, which makes it difficult to capture them photographically in order to facilitate a global understanding of their spaces —as can be shown by making an on-line research of images referring to any of the referred works —.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to limit this inconvenience, the publication of the research integrated numerous images taken by professional photographers specializing in architecture. However, this tool was not enough to convey the global aspect of each work, instead of the impression of a succession of diverse elements without a coherent thread.

Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that the difficulty of photographic representation can be considered a value, as it would imply the need for a direct experience of the works in order to understand them —which is considered by Jacques Herzog as “the only possibility of survival for architecture”, with “direct in-situ experience being the most vital factor” and “the first priority, and the only way for architecture to compete with other media” (Ursprung, 2002)—.

Drawing analysis of the works

In spite of what has been said, and without trying to replace an irreplaceable direct experience, the research had to appeal to other methods that allowed a greater understanding of the works. In this context, it was decided to use planimetry —understood as a resource proper to architecture and commonly used successfully in the field of professional practice— that had not been applied until then in the analysis of Manrique’s architectural work, carried out mainly by art historians.

To facilitate the understanding of the works, it was decided to integrate planimetric documentation accompanying photographs and written explanations. This documentation consisted mainly of recent surveys —since Manrique favoured an empirical development of architecture on site with little recourse to previous graphic elements, which were therefore practically non-existent—. However, despite the value of these technical drawings, their integration did not seem to be decisive for the general public’s understanding of the works.

Finally, it was decided to resort to representations in axonometric perspective —simple, sectioned or exploded, according to the complexity of each case— made by hand, in which the geometric characteristics of the existing organic forms were simplified, allowing a more direct understanding of the spaces.

Justification and methodology for the use of axonometric sketches

The axonometric drawing responds to the needs of research, as it is a system of representation that allows the perception of the full object and its real dimensions. Its use is associated with an objectivity and clarity that are essential in the scientific field, as opposed to ” the excesses of the perspectives of Beaux-Arts designers” (Scolari, 2007) or a predefined “domesticated” view of the object (Bois, 1981). In parallel, axonometric drawing is considered a medium with great communicative capacity not only in a specialised field, but also for its diffusion to the general public (Cocozza, 2017). 

All these characteristics underline the suitability of this system of representation applied to research work, with remarkable examples such as Leonardo da Vinci’s analytical sketches —which illustrate an ability “to representing the actual space of an object rather than an object in space” (Scolari, 1984), in particular adequacy with the objectives of our architectural analysis—.

Regarding the use of freehand sketches for research and its subsequent diffusion, we can remember how ” The sketch, more than any other drawing, is able to speak instantly with a single logic, because through its paths the hand imitates the idea with voluntary omissions. With a few scratches the pencil deposits the traces of everything that is omitted” (Scolari, 2007). This makes the sketch a tool widely used in the professional practice of architecture, being considered “a distinctive language of our profession, with which architectural thought is expressed” and where the natural point is favoured as ” it is not a simple aesthetic perception, [but] it is a comprehensive and integrating vision” (Gentil and Gámiz, 2017).

Therefore, for the analysis of Manrique’s work we favored axonometric sketches made in-situ. These drawings were made by hand, with a black ink pen on A5 format paper. Their execution was based on the direct perception of the works, confronted with the existing planimetric documentation and occasional laser measurements. The final drawings would include the main dimensions of the spaces analysed, but without an excessive accumulation of information that would have made them difficult to read. As is usual in this type of graphic analysis, the final result was the conclusion of various tests and adjustments based on personal critical experience, with the drawings being adapted and improved in the successive versions necessary to achieve a clear, rigorous and eloquent final outcome.

Assessment of the drawings

The integration of the axonometric sketches in the analysis was positively valued by the architects interviewed. Jacques Herzog insisted on the graphic quality of the drawings and their communicative capacity. In his opinion, one of the interests of the work was the choice of axonometry as a means of graphic expression, which would allow Manrique’s works to be understood from the outside as a unit, thus revealing their labyrinthine complexity and showing their buried spaces. In addition, a good way of graphically transmitting Manrique’s work would be, in his opinion, by contrasting professional photographs of the interior with the exterior vision presented by the sketches —as ended up being done in the final publication (Scarpa, 2014).

In the interview with Álvaro Siza, the axonometric sketches opened a prolonged conversation about the spaces of Manrique’s works, suggesting approaches and giving support for going deeper into the detail of some elements. In general, Siza would value the use of sketches, insisting that “drawing is a way of enlarging thought. When you draw you have a more direct way of thinking” (Scarpa, 2015).

Concerning the specialized audience and its assessment of the axonometric sketches integrated in the research, we can mention the review written for this magazine by Professor Vito Cardone -who was president of the Unione Italiana per il Disegno-, in which “the intelligent use of drawing as a key instrument of analysis is underlined, with very effective freehand sketches” where “what is studied is measured, something very rare today in the architectural field, where everything seems excessive in all senses and it has been forgotten that ‘there is no architecture without measure’ “. (Cardone, 2018).

Finally, regarding the reception of the drawings by the general public, their interest has been analysed thanks to the traffic data received by a publicly accessible web page associated with the research, which includes various contents referring to Manrique’s work on Lanzarote such as photos, texts, audiovisual material and the aforementioned axonometric sketches. In this sense, the result was conclusive, highlighting the flow of visits received by the axonometric sketches, both for their absolute number and for the average consultation time.


With all the exposed, the interest of the use of axonometric sketches has been proved in the communication and analysis of works with a spatial complexity equivalent to those of César Manrique’s Art Centres. Its relevance has been confronted with other two-dimensional means such as photography -and this both for the specialized professional and scientific audiences, as well as for the general public-.

We could say, in addition to the popular belief that an image is worth a thousand words, that in architecture this valuable image could well be an axonometric sketch.