Introduction

In December 2018 I travelled to my home country, Colombia, for the festive holidays. There, whilst my father and I were driving around Bogotá, I listened to ‘Mini Stories: Volume 5’, a podcast by a US company called 99% Invisible that consisted of an annual compilation of short stories. The first item caught my attention because it was introduced through a particular item of clothing that was produced as marketing merchandise for the 1967 British TV series, The Prisoner, as is recounted in the podcast transcript (Figure 1). The Prisoner was a show conceived within the context of the Cold War boom in the genre of spy novels and films, and tells of how a former British agent, named simply as No. 6, and played by Patrick McGoohan, tries in various ways to escape from ‘The Village’ – a charming yet mysterious seaside community to where he has been abducted as a prisoner.

Figure 1 

Transcript of part of the podcast of ‘Mini-Stories: Volume 5’ by 99% Invisible. [Text transcribed by author].

For Roman Mars and Avery Trufelman, the bizarreness of The Prisoner’s plot is complemented by the unusual set in which the story takes place. ‘The Village’, as it is called in the 1967 television series, appears to be an architectural pastiche stage-set with buildings in a plethora of different styles ranging from Arts-and-Crafts to Nordic Classicism, each of them painted in soft pastel colours. This mixture of colourful architecture and the surrounding woodlands and seashore gives an isolated feel to ‘The Village’, suggesting that it exists in an uncertain, indeed enigmatic, geographical site. In various episodes, No. 6 is told the approximate location of this place: first in Lithuania, then on the coast of Morocco, and so on. However, the real filming location of The Prisoner was then revealed in the opening credits for its final episode as being Portmeirion, a niche holiday resort on the northern Welsh coastline which had been created and developed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (1883–1978) over a very long period, from 1925 to 1976 (Figure 2).

Figure 2 

Still from the final episode of The Prisoner where Clough Williams-Ellis and Portmeirion are credited [Image courtesy of author from ‘Fall Out’, Episode 17].

Despite the publicity that Portmeirion has continued to receive from the television and film industries over the years, it is usually dismissed by architectural historians as a ‘hodgepodge of European architecture’ [1]. It tends to be pigeonholed into three different narratives that are alien to the broader discourse of British architectural history, with the project being called a ‘Home for Fallen Buildings’, a ‘touristic destination and beautiful pocket of madness’, or merely the film location for The Prisoner. This essay hence aims to overturn these standard narratives by examining the long career of Clough Williams-Ellis – his publications, autobiographies, and architectural practice – as sources to re-evaluate the relationship between the rival interpretations of Portmeirion and the specific historical contexts out of which they emerged.

Additionally, this essay relies on the direct experience – and hence ‘situated knowledge’ [2; p. 581] – that I able to obtain during a period of fieldwork research in Portmeirion in mid-2019. As such, the study of this site is rooted in both my subjective position as an academic researcher and as an international tourist whose first encounter with it had come through digital media. Hence, the essay incorporates a narrative mode of ‘creative writing’ [3] in which the speculative and experiential, as well as critical and self-reflecting perspectives, work together to construct an alternative reading. My physical and metaphorical journey to Portmeirion is thus presented as the means to challenge its eccentric, individualistic and elusive character. By portraying the way in which not only the author and reader are required to travel across Britain to visit this holiday village, and in which they then encounter Portmeirion as if on a journey through time – whether as a Disney-before-Disney leisure resort or as the fictional home for The Prisoner – this essay questions and repositions the site as a significant architectural collection within the wider context of British seaside development.

Provenance (May 2019, London)

After watching the entire series of The Prisoner and some music videos subsequently shot at Portmeirion during the 1980s and 90s, such as ‘See Those Eyes’ by Altered Images and ‘Alright’ by Supergrass, I decided to trace the village’s portrayal in as many other media as I could find. As a student on a Masters course in London, I bought myself a copy of Fear in The Sunlight at Waterstone’s Bloomsbury branch, this being a 2012 novel and the fourth book in Nicola Upson’s mystery series. The novel tells the story of a murder that takes place in Portmeirion in 1936. In describing the setting for her story, Upson, adopting words by Josephine Tey (an earlier British crime writer), explains that Clough Williams-Ellis sought to create an architectural treasure that would demonstrate that ‘exploitation need not mean spoliation’; he did so by carefully turning a piece of wilderness in north Wales into what feels like it is an old hill town on the Italian coastline.

However, in her description of the place, Upson fails to mention Williams-Ellis’ two key purposes for Portmeirion: that it, to introduce and give a sense of architectural pleasure to the visiting public, and to use his scheme to prove that ‘good architectural manners’ could be a sensible financial investment [4: p. 12]. Instead, Upson prefers to focus yet again on Portmeirion’s eccentric appearance and the life of its bizarre creator. Such representations are however problematic, given that Upson’s book merely reinforces the primary reason why Portmeirion has been disregarded for so long within British architectural history. As one of the few to have written sympathetically about the project, Richard Haslam notes that Clough Williams-Ellis ‘came to be omitted from at least one standard text on the British twentieth-century’, if not more [5: p. 14]. The visual gaiety of Portmeirion is usually misunderstood, and downplayed, by architectural historians for being an affected caprice.

With this problem in mind, I realised that to understand the place better I needed to look in detail at its creator’s life, work and publications – which I proceeded to do avidly throughout the months of May and June 2019. Starting initially in London-based archives at the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Library, I moved on to investigate resources available at Portmeirion itself and in the National Library of Wales, slightly further down the Welsh coast in Aberystwyth. As Clough Williams-Ellis had himself explained: ‘[Portmeirion] is so much more me than anything else I have built elsewhere’ [6: p. 96]. Hence my task was to delve further into his motives (Figure 3).

Figure 3 

Photograph of Clough Williams-Ellis in The Grotto at Portmeirion [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].

The Royal Institute of British Architects (May 2019, London)

In the stuffy RIBA library, where rows of books and compilations of magazines and journals published worldwide delimit and set the tone and atmosphere of the space that I had to inhabit for a couple of days a week during May 2019, I discovered that the publications on Clough Williams-Ellis’ life and work were limited to articles and interviews in periodicals like Country Life, The Architects’ Journal, Town Planning Review, Architect & Building News, and others. In these journals he was typically featured as an unconventional ‘architectural jester’. Some reasons for this judgement were Williams-Ellis’ characteristic yet unusual fashion sense, somewhat outdated when compared to 1920s and 30s fashion standards in Britain; his curious intellectual interests and writings; and his magpie architectural education and practice overshadowed by two world wars. He had spent less than a year at Cambridge University studying natural sciences before moving to the Architectural Association in 1903, where he in fact only stayed for three months. Despite not finishing his education, he was commissioned to design a charitable institution near Oxford in 1905; this project, along with others, allowed him to test out a variety of styles that began with vernacular Arts-and-Crafts and morphed gradually into Neo-Classical and then Moderne after the First World War. It was a diversity that not only illustrated the changing class tastes of his well-to-do clientele but also became the mixture that Portmeirion would later be known for (Figure 4).

Figure 4 

Designs by Clough Williams-Ellis for various commissions between 1905 and 1941 [Image courtesy of author, drawings taken from Richard Haslam, Clough Williams-Ellis. Academy Editions; 1996].

Because of his self-conscious individuality, Williams-Ellis tended to be dismissed by other British architects at the time. This apparently did not bother him much, and slowly the perception that others had of him started to change over the years – as he mentions in the ‘obituary’ that he included in his 1978 autobiography, Around the World in Ninety Years:

[He] was resented by the already established practitioners … As being as unseemly an intrusion as would be an outsider imprudently gate-crashing an intimate private party. As however, he seemed to be increasingly accepted by the public and by the media as a perfectly serious ‘professional’ and soon even welcomed as a rising new light in the then somewhat dim architectural horizon, he was eventually and most generously welcomed unto the official fold. [6: p. 125]

The latter claim is perhaps a touch fanciful, yet what seems to have altered the perception of fellow architects about Clough Williams-Ellis was the campaigning work he engaged on during the 1920s and 30s to preserve the British countryside against the threat of ‘ribbon development’, the product of urban sprawl. His opposition was manifested in his best-selling book, England and the Octopus (1928) (Figure 5), as well as in Williams-Ellis’ earlier publications for the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, National Trust, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and Design and Industries Association. Worth noting is that the campaign mounted by Clough Williams-Ellis – in tandem with similar views expressed by more famous figures such as Patrick Geddes, Raymond Unwin, Charles Reilly, Guy Dawber, Lawrence Weaver, Patrick Abercrombie and Herbert Griffin – followed the propagandic formula developed during the First World War. This had, as Gary Willis explains, been ‘aimed at motivating men to fight overseas and women to support the war effort at home’ [7, p. 259]. Hence the polemic by Williams-Ellis and others was now positioning the countryside, and above all the rural landscape, as representing the ‘essential England’ which people had fought for in the Great War. This sense of fervour was evident in two cartoons from Punch magazine from 1919 that were reproduced in England and the Octopus, as well as in the ‘Cautionary Guides’ being published by the Design and Industries Association and in advertisements in Portmeirion’s early visitors’ guidebooks, which encouraged guests to join in the campaign to protect the countryside (Figure 6).

Figure 5 

Dust jacket of England and the Octopus [Image courtesy of author, taken from Clough Williams-Ellis, England and the Octopus. Golden Dragon Books; 1996].

Figure 6 

Final pages from the visitors’ guidebook, Portmeirion Explained (1929), inviting readers to join the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].

Despite the popularity of the campaign against urban sprawl, Williams-Ellis still felt that something was missing. In his autobiography, Architect Errant, he explains this in the following way:

[I] began to feel increasingly that to say what I had to say in words was not enough … Ought it not to be possible to use the mode of expression that came most naturally to me, actual building, to show an example, a life-size model, which would surely be both more eloquent and more convincing than mere writing? [8: p. 138]

After all, building was what came most naturally to Williams-Ellis, not writing. As his wife, Amabel (née Strachey), herself an author, tellingly observed: ‘his impulse all his life was to make something tangible’ [9: p. 67]. Therefore, whilst juggling his architectural practice, his campaign to preserve the English countryside, and his personal family life, from 1925 onwards the battle waged by Williams-Ellis included a new element which would gradually offer a practical demonstration of seemly and sympathetic rural development: Portmeirion (Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 7 

Photograph of the central piazza at Portmeirion [Courtesy of the author].

Figure 8 

Photograph of the view from the Lady’s Lodge looking over the central piazza at Portmeirion [Courtesy of the author].

The Victoria and Albert Museum (May 2019, London)

With the constant thought that the end of May was fast approaching, and that I had yet to visit Portmeirion and examine other primary sources other than architectural books and journals, I booked an appointment at the RIBA’s Architecture Study Rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum to look for myself at their collection of drawings by Clough Williams-Ellis. The folder that I was given contained rough sketches and scaled drawings by Williams-Ellis for diverse commissions: private houses, village centres, extensions to existing buildings, and detailed designs for elements such as shop signs and lanterns. In looking at all the pieces in this rather extensive repertoire of works, I stumbled upon a preliminary design in 1925 for Portmeirion. In this drawing, most likely the earliest representation of the village, the buildings appear to float on the linen page without a particular site in mind. Yet still they possess a strong Mediterranean feel to them that was inspired above all by Portofino – a city that Williams-Ellis had visited along with Geoffrey Scott before the First World War. Above all, these early sketches demonstrated Williams-Ellis’ fascination with the grouping of buildings according to topography – a concept that is characteristic of Italian coastal towns, where, in Haslam’s words, ‘architecture works as a mediating element between sea and land, both visually and functionally’ [5: p. 88]. Today, when googling ‘Portmeirion’ one readily reads that its architecture ‘has been allowed the licence that the strangely exotic flavour of its whole setting seemed to warrant’ [10: p. 14], this being a phrase taken from its own very first visitors’ guidebook.

Yet as an explanation for why Portmeirion was built, it is not enough. The new holiday village was directly motivated by Williams-Ellis’ crusade for rural preservation, and therefore had behind it a very serious purpose that justified what was obviously a risky commercial development. Williams-Ellis wrote that there were three distinct reasons for creating Portmeirion as an example for future rural developments to follow:

I wanted to show that one could develop even a beautiful site without defiling it and indeed, given sufficient sympathy and skill, one might even enhance what nature had provided as your background. Second, I was saddened at finding so many people missing the intense interest and enjoyment to be gained from an appreciation of architecture, landscape, design, the use of colour and perspectives, and indeed of the environmental art generally – often, I found, because they were shy of technicalities – so I sought to provide an easy, gay, sort of ‘light-opera’ approach to these seeming mysteries, that would not frighten them off but entice them into interest, criticism and finally enjoyment. Finally, having seen so many potentially hopeful projects fail to fulfil their promoter’s hopes and promises through architectural and planning ineptitude – I hoped to suggest that architectural good manners can mean good business. [6: p. 96]

To be able to create and finance his experimental development on a site that he had purchased in the estuary of the River Dwyryd, amid the hilly terrain of north Wales, Williams-Ellis took on the split roles of architect and client, constructing in the process a luxurious seaside resort that aimed to challenge the standards of British twentieth-century architecture. Significantly, however, Williams-Ellis was not the only one trying to build a Disney-before-Disney holiday resort in interwar Britain. A decade before he had made his first drawing for Portmeirion in 1925, another coastal getaway development was conceived around the children’s literature of Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island, namely the purpose-built holiday village of Thorpeness in Suffolk.

Coastal Imaginaries (May 2019, London)

I first stumbled upon Thorpeness in the pages of Gillian Darley’s book, Villages of Vision, with that touristic village standing out because of its architectural novelty and for being one of the various private commissions for picturesque rural villages in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain, as an alternative to the growing shift then towards public and municipal responsibility for working-class housing. However, I decided not to visit Thorpeness after realising that it was best understood as a cautionary tale, rather than a positive precedent for Portmeirion.

Founded by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie on the site of a 6,000-acre abandoned fishing hamlet on the east coast of Suffolk that he bought in 1910, with little infrastructure or even vegetation, Thorpeness was planned as a hybrid of a rural estate village and a fantasy resort. It was aimed primarily at the children of wealthy parents in London, and as such adapted the literary works of J.M. Barrie (a friend of Ogilvie’s), Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Carroll in its design and marketing strategies. This was most visible in ‘The Meare’, a 64-acre shallow lake where children could play on islands with props such as the ‘Pirates’ Lair’, ‘Wendy’s House’, ‘Crocodile Island’, and ‘Peter Pan’s Island’ (Figure 9).

Figure 9 

Map of ‘The Meare’ at Thorpeness showing an imaginative lay-out with islands named after locations from children’s literature [Source: Philip Dawes’ guidebook to Thorpeness, 1930s].

Despite, the dreamlike aesthetic that Thorpeness might seem to share with Portmeirion, plus their prefiguring of later leisure theme-parks – evident from the countless images I could find online and in print – these projects followed significantly different routes as time progressed. Ogilvie’s granddaughter, Ailsa Ogilvie De Mille, in her book One Man’s Dream, states that the aim of Stuart Ogilvie, working with his architects Frederick Forbes Glennie and William Gilmour Wilson, was to develop the site without ruining it ‘with hideous monstrosities’ [11: p. 96]. However, the lack of a cohesive plan for Thorpeness, coupled with its increasing popularity, caused the village to fall victim to what Clough Williams-Ellis termed the ‘bungalow virus’. As a result, houses were built in Thorpeness that did not follow the architectural plan and the estate slowly fell into poor condition. Accumulated death duties of around £1 million, plus numerous other debts and financial difficulties during the 1970s, caused Thorpeness Ltd to go into voluntary liquidation – only ‘The Meare’ was kept by the Ogilvie family.

The degradation of Thorpeness over the decades meant that an ‘extraordinary enterprise and a uniquely imaginary concept came to be drowned by inferior housing additions’ [12: p. 183]. The lessons behind its misstep were a warning to Clough Williams-Ellis at Portmeirion. Instead, from the earliest development stages of his village, Williams-Ellis approached and modified the site using a procedure he referred to as ‘pegging out’, this being his own interpretation of Patrick Geddes’ concept of ‘conservative surgery’. As can be seen by looking at maps of the successive development stages, Williams-Ellis was always careful in adding and subtracting pieces on the site to enhance the original landscape – which meant incorporating various ‘found’ elements such as some 1840s buildings into the incremental scheme he enacted the 1920s to accommodate paying guests within this new seaside resort (Figures 10 and 11).

Figure 10 

Plan of the site of Portmeirion in the 1840s showing the pre-existing buildings [Created by author from the 1901 Ordnance Survey County Series map by using the EDINA Historic Digimap Service, http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/].

Figure 11 

Plan of Portmeirion in the 1970s including the last additions by Clough Williams-Ellis [Created by author from the 1974 Ordnance Survey National Grid map by using the EDINA Historic Digimap Service, <http://digimap.edina.ac.uk/>].

During the initial phase in the 1920s, Williams-Ellis designed and built a few dominant structures to create the highlights of Portmeirion, notably the Campanile, Watch House and Chantry; these were later linked together by subsidiary buildings, decorative structures and accommodation units for the rising number of guests. Starting in the 1930s, and then with renewed energy in the 1950s, he also bought up ‘rescued’ buildings from elsewhere and reconstructed them on site, such as the Bristol Colonnade. By the 1960s the obvious tourist appeal of the village – even prior to the filming and screening of The Prisoner – meant that further hotel rooms and self-catering apartments needed to be provided at Portmeirion, along with new features such as the Pantheon, Gothic Pavilion, Grotto and Central Piazza. Williams-Ellis’ final projects during the 1970s were for few facilities like the Tollgate, a swimming pool, a café/shop (Caffi 6), and an office building (Figure 12).

Figure 12 

Tourist map of Portmeirion today [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].

Clough Williams-Ellis’ commitment to the ‘pegging out’ approach thus allowed him to develop the village very slowly, assembling it piece by piece and maintaining the natural vegetation and the older buildings. As a result, Portmeirion’s intended aim, that of ‘exploitation need not necessarily mean spoliation’, and thus possibility of enhancing the beauty of a site by ‘building appropriately’, became progressively apparent. Portmeirion’s buildings and decorative elements, alongside its unique natural setting, constituted a reciprocal relationship which, for Williams-Ellis, was the reason why the village was so successful as a holiday resort:

The many loggias and belvederes … [and] gardens and terraces and flights of steps to pools and fountains, its architectural bridges and miniature harbour works and lighthouse … are essential and integral parts of the whole scheme, and it is because of them and the natural amenities that they have sought to emphasise and set off, however inadequately, that the place is so well esteemed and therefore prosperous.’ [13: p. 180]

Realisation (2nd June 2019, London and Shrewsbury)

On the sunny morning of 2nd June, I walked to Euston Station in London to board a train that would finally take me to Portmeirion. Since it was going to be a 6-hour journey I had already planned out how to spend my time before arriving at my destination in Minffordd. Once settled into my train seat, I began looking at the people around me. As it was a Sunday, most were families travelling to other cities to tour and explore, to visit relatives, or generally to relax and enjoy. Me, however, wearing a black windbreaker, combat boots, and carrying a backpack and a tote bag filled with clothes and ‘research equipment’ – laptop computer, notebook, pens, and tape recorder –clearly did not accord with the general sentiment that any eighteenth-century Romantic poet or artist might have shared with everyone else on the train, that of seeking refuge from bustling city life in the contemplation of nature and rural life.

After a couple of hours into my journey to Wales, the train stopped at Shrewsbury, five miles away from the parish of Atcham where ‘The Mytton and Mermaid’ is located. This hotel, a former Georgian coaching inn, was often featured in the pages of Portmeirion’s guidebooks since from 1932 up till around 1950 it served as a useful staging post for Londoners attracted to travel to the resort. The decline of ‘The Mytton and Mermaid’ reflected how newer methods of road transport, including charabancs, coaches and cars, were changing how British people travelled to their holiday destinations – thereby, helping to extending the reach of tourism by opening it up to the working classes and lower-middle classes who from the interwar era flocked to coastal towns such as Brighton, Blackpool, Clacton and Skegness. The increasing adoption in interwar years of Modernist architecture as the characteristic aesthetic of these seaside resorts came to be associated with the sense of them being places of fantasy and escape (Figures 13 and 14).

Figure 13 

Postcard of the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea [Source: The County Associations Ltd, late-1930s].

Figure 14 

Postcard of the Saltdean Lido near Brighton [Source: Shoesmith and Etheridge (Norman Series), late-1930s].

Portmeirion, with its distinctive mixture of architectural styles, remained aloof from this democratising trend in British cultural life, making the village feel increasingly outdated and not at all suited to the ‘Kiss-Me-Quick’ tastes and habits of more proletarian seaside resorts. Nonetheless, it provided a place where mainly middle-class families could relax and enjoy seaside holidays. Portmeirion, in being designed to be detached – even isolated – from outside interference, unlike most other resorts, instead forged its relationship with the natural landscape surrounding it. This was the characteristic that most impressed Maxwell Fry in the late-1920s, as I came to realise from a digitalised copy of an article he had written for The Architects’ Journal, and which I read on my laptop on the train journey to Wales. Fry described Portmeirion’s atmosphere thus:

… there are no advertisements of anything; no notices direct you to the obvious woods; there is no promenade; there are no charabancs; no garish petrol pumps, and nothing that detracts from the natural beauty of the scene. Rather the reverse, for it is from the combination of the architecture with its setting that the charm of a local atmosphere has been evolved, each helping the other in its particular way either in the valley or on the cliff top. [14: p. 875]

The reciprocity between site and architecture that Fry identified at Portmeirion is what Clough Williams-Ellis very much hoped others would also seek to achieve when building other settlements. Intended as a lesson, Williams-Ellis’ views on how to build on a beautiful site without ruining it was turned by him into a widespread attack against the ‘bungalow colonies’ and ‘ribbon developments’ being scattered across the British countryside and along its coastline.

Plotlands (2nd June 2019, Machynlleth)

It was more than evident by the early-twentieth century that the face of Britain was changing. Rapid urban expansion was triggered both by the ongoing exodus from rural to urban areas and by major changes in land ownership and use, particularly in wake of David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. The latter introduced a form of land tax that caused many of those experiencing financial difficulties to decide to sell off at least part of their land to speculators wanting to build housing estates.

Some of the residual land, however, was sold off as plotlands, especially around the coastline, leading to an increase in the number of self-built shanty developments. Jaywick in Essex was one such seaside community that grew up after some families initially decided to erect their own shacks, and then later construct permanent residences, with linked smallholdings, in an effort to become economically self-sufficient (Figure 15). This pattern was especially exemplified by Peacehaven in Sussex, a 1916 philanthropic and paternalistic initiative by Charles Neville. Originally planned to become a stable settlement, Neville lost control over the sale of the plots and the development process became arbitrary, with many purchasers never able to take possession of their land (Figure 16). This absence of organized and planned development in the rural English landscape, including along the coastline, motivated many preservationists to denounce the disgraceful poverty of design in the plotlands schemes; instead, they called for more governmental control over the use of coastal land. This viewpoint reflected the elitist prejudices of these preservationists, most of whom had upper-middle-class upbringings, as Nigel Harrison points out [15: p. 393]. It was amid such figures that Clough Williams-Ellis took up cudgels with unplanned rural development in the mid-1920s by starting on Portmeirion and by publishing his most polemical book, the previously mentioned England and The Octopus.

Figure 15 

Aerial view of Jaywick in Essex in the 1950s [Source: Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward. Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape. Mansell; 1984, p. 77].

Figure 16 

Aerial view of Peacehaven in East Sussex in the 1920s [Source: Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward. Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape. Mansell; 1984, p. 155].

Williams-Ellis kept up this campaign for decade. In 1937 he published Britain and the Beast along with the celebrated economist, John Maynard Keynes, plus others, as a combined attempt by intellectuals and writers who shared a common desire to protect the English countryside and its traditions. The book reiterated the need for a landscape that was simultaneously modern yet traditional, and which would be planned under the guidance of an expert public authority to ensure that ‘the homes of the peoples are no longer disfiguring eruptions on the face of the land, but a welcome and becoming adornment, as they were in the days when England was beautiful because of them’ [16: p. 341]. Britain and the Beast was to have a profound impact on post-war town planning not only because it helped to establish official policies aimed at regulating land development and rural leisure provision, but also because it supported those new developments, like Portmeirion, which sought to remedy the problem of scenic disorder perceived as being caused by (lower-class) mass holidaymakers.

Holiday Camps (2nd June 2019, Talybont)

Five hours into my journey to Portmeirion, I had finished the to-do list planned for my train ride, and so with some free time I finally decided to relax and look through the window for the first time to study the Welsh landscape being presented to me. After spotting a couple of isolated cottages and the predictable hordes of sheep, I gradually notice a few static caravans and then hundreds of these caravans grouped together as if forming gated rural communities. Since I had only ever seen such things in movies and television series, I googled on my phone to find out where I was and why these caravan parks had come into being.

My google search informed me about the spread of static caravan parks like those I was looking at, with most commentators agreeing that they stemmed from interwar legislation like the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act. Such laws had helped to popularise pioneering initiatives such as Caister Holiday Camp, an establishment which provided the necessary temporary accommodation for holidaymakers and yet offered an aesthetically acceptable antidote to urban sprawl. While this was interesting, it is also the case that those kinds of settlements are not what most people in Britain would usually think about when hearing the words ‘holiday camp’. Rather, what would come to mind were the large commercial ‘Hi-de-Hi’ camps that began in the 1930s, catering to thousands of working-class people, and introduced to Britain by the likes of Harry Warren, Fred Pontin and Billy Butlin. These summer ‘leisure bubbles’, worlds in themselves created for pleasure and happiness, and developed as self-contained resorts with their own network of private roads, commercial facilities and entertainment complexes, steadily lost their impact and popularity in the decades after the Second World War when advances in air flight made overseas holidays affordable to the majority. By the 1990s many of the famous British holiday camps had closed, often leaving behind derelict sites with decaying architecture. In other cases, the decline of once-popular holiday camps saw them replaced by other developments – very often the static caravan parks such as those I could see repeatedly through the train window as it passed places like Talybont.

Billy Butlin’s Pwllheli, a holiday camp that Williams-Ellis had initially encouraged during the 1940s, but later regretted having done so, is in many ways an exemplar of the patterns of transition in British coastal tourism in the twentieth- and early-twenty-first centuries. Today it has been taken over by Haven Holidays as a static caravan park and renamed as Hafan y Môr. These sites, also termed as holiday parks, create what Fred Gray describes as their ‘own separate geography composed by rectangular and flat-roofed box made out of plastic and aluminium … with the parks in total forming a disjointed and hidden linear city held together by the closeness to the sea and web of private roads and clusters of commercial facilities’ [17: p. 299].

With a record figure of 1.1 million leisure accommodation vehicles being registered in Britain in 2017 – including motorhomes, touring caravans and static caravan holiday homes – these caravan parks are aimed largely at working-class holidaymakers who desire their own private space rather than the collective sense of pleasure and community that the older type of holiday camps used to provide. Instead, they create their own distinctive model of rural coastal development that can be commonly seen around the periphery of the British Isles.

Even though the inter-war caravan parks and holiday camps, and their successors, offered one solution against the urbanisation of the coastline, their layouts were and still are reminiscent of an industrial factory estate or military barracks. They have created large-scale schemes using standardised architectural forms which fail in many ways to acknowledge or respect their setting, instead just taking over large plots of seaside land and exploiting them to their full capacity. In contrast, it can be argued that Portmeirion’s concept as a speculative island built for visual and sensory pleasure, with a still-sizeable number of visitors at around 200,000 people a year, is more sustainable both environmentally and financially. Clough Williams-Ellis’ belief in good manners in architecture required all the buildings in his village to behave as decent citizens and neighbours, and to harmonise with their environment – a sympathetic approach towards existing urban and rural contexts, no doubt influenced by Arthur Trystan Edwards’ book on Good and Bad Manners in Architecture (1924). In the mind of Edwards, good architectural manners referred to the social responsibility of paying due respect to existing buildings for them to live together, particularly in terms of façades that were in keeping with their context [18]. Williams-Ellis therefore interpreted Edwards’ approach when designing Portmeirion, thinking of it as the need to integrate with the site in a manner that minimised the negative environmental impacts of building, by pursuing a more efficient use of materials.

Williams-Ellis achieved this at the architectural scale by developing his village in two concerted phases, from 1926 to 1939 and from 1954 to 1976, and only adding in other buildings and structures when deemed necessary by tourist demand. As a ‘scavenger architect’, as he referred to himself, Williams-Ellis constructed much of Portmeirion using materials he obtained from demolished and abandoned buildings. He described his visits to the yard of his favourite builder, saying that he would:

… look over his dump and decide that they will do thus and thus in order to use up, suitably and economically, just such materials as may be immediately available. Reinforced concrete, brickwork, masonry, weatherboarding, slate hanging and lath, and plaster are all represented, as found convenient and as seemed likely to best suit whatever we intended to construct.’ [19: p. 246]

Furthermore, as Portmeirion grew, Williams-Ellis continually ensured that it was congruous with its natural setting, even to the point of allowing it to be assimilated by the surrounding landscape. At both these scales, neither the site with its existing buildings, nor the eclectic holiday village inserted by Williams-Ellis, diminished the beauty of either. In anything, their symbiotic relationship enhanced each other, as was portrayed in a 1956 aerial view of Portmeirion that is still being shared with visitors in the current visitors’ guidebook (Figure 17). It supports the belief of Williams-Ellis that the development of a naturally beautiful site need not mean its defilement.

Figure 17 

Aerial view of Portmeirion in 1956 showing its then-current state of development [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].

Arriving at the Village (2nd June 2019, Minffordd)

At the end of my long journey from Euston Station to Gwynedd in north Wales, I eventually arrived at Minffordd, where one of the guardians of Portmeirion kindly picked me up and drove me to the village. As we drove towards it, I got the feeling that I was no longer in Britain – not only because we drove past Castell Deudraeth, owned by Portmeirion Ltd and erected in the 1850s by David Williams and then restored in the 1990s, but also because we were surrounded by woodlands with a variety of tropical plant species that if anything reminded me of my home in Colombia. Arriving in Portmeirion from ‘the outside world’ felt to me more like an experience reminiscent of the myth of the search for El Dorado, where at the end of the quest one is presented with a fantastical city.

Once settled into my room, I went outside to wander around the place. Although I tried hard to resist, I could not escape the feeling that Portmeirion was an open-air film studio, ready and waiting for its next shoot. What surprised me most was just how small and brightly coloured everything was; it took no more than ten minutes to walk from one end of the village to the other. Moreover, the image of a pastel citadel, large enough to make up a whole coastal town, as Portmeirion was portrayed in The Prisoner, had falsely shaped my perception. In actuality, the village was no more than a ‘small and elegant little mouse’, as Clough Williams-Ellis memorably described it [20: p. 134].

The Next Day (3rd June 2019, Portmeirion)

The following day after my arrival, I joined one of the official guided tours through Portmeirion. The guide told us who its creator was, why he had decided to build it, and, of course, mentioned the influence that The Prisoner had on the village, even to the point of altering the original landscape and ‘vistas’ with permanent installations which commemorated that television series (Figure 18). Yet even though The Prisoner had morphed the size and nature of Portmeirion, it had accurately alluded to its link to other far-flung examples of exotic architecture – this being for a long time a defining characteristic of seaside resorts, such as John Nash’s Brighton Pavilion (1787–1823), whereby fantastical structures were designed to enable users to imagine they had travelled to alternative worlds (Figure 19).

Figure 18 

Photograph of the life-size chessboard at Portmeirion inspired by the human chessboard shown in The Prisoner [Courtesy of the author].

Figure 19 

Postcard from the 1960s showing John Nash’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton [Source: D. Constance Ltd].

In Portmeirion this sense of otherworldliness, of being in another place, was not created by designing ornate ‘Orientalist’ architecture, notwithstanding a couple of small structures of that kind which I spotted in the village during the guided tour. There is in fact no grand examples such as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton or later variants like Hastings Pier (Figure 20). Instead, the village relies upon a more generalised and low-key refence to Italian coastal towns through its bold experimentation with colour, scale and style. What is produced is a resort that is aesthetically designed down to the last detail, presenting to the visitor a richly atmospheric scenography which, by continuing around every corner, creates an illusionistic continuum. It is a technique that Walt Disney was to follow so famously during the mid-1950s at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. For instance, Williams-Ellis decided to emulate the miniature ‘castle’ used to house the washrooms and latrines in one of the very first British holiday camps, Cunningham’s Camp in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and so for Portmeirion he copied the trick of disguising the more basic, functional installations with fantastical forms. Thus, the public toilets, house chimneys and the village’s electrical sub-mains station are all carefully hidden away. Moreover, inspired by the 1923 Gothenburg Exposition in Sweden, which Clough Williams-Ellis had visited along with Lawrence Weaver, and with knowledge also of Claude Lovat Fraser’s vivid use of colour in his stage designs for a 1920s production of The Beggars Opera, Portmeirion was designed in what Williams-Ellis called a ‘light-opera’ approach that hoped to win ‘as yet uninterested and uninformed popular support for architecture, planning, landscaping, the use of colour and indeed for design generally’ [13: p. 209].

Figure 20 

An example of seaside orientalism as shown in an early-1900s postcard of the pier and pavilion at Hastings [Source: Pictorial Stationary Company Ltd].

As part of this deliberately light-hearted method of introducing visitors to the mysteries of architecture so they would be intrigued by and enjoy it, Williams-Ellis chose to ‘Clough-up’, as he termed it, the new buildings at Portmeirion. This involved a technique whereby the structures were deliberately painted in two or three shades of a similar colour to suggest a more aged and weathered look, or else to paint structures in two brightly contrasting colours to alter their appearance and proportions. This can be seen openly at The Chantry and Chantry Row, where the two buildings manage to conceal the number of apartments they really contain, and a typical rectangular chimney is hidden behind a more colourful and expressive turret (Figure 21). Other theatrical tricks played by buildings at Portmeirion include painting false windows on their façades, making the arches too low, and using deliberately smaller statues to intensify the illusion of scale and distance.

Figure 21 

The façades of Chantry (far left) and Chantry Row (right), with colour being used to divide the latter visually into what appear to be individual terraced houses when in fact they are part of larger self-catering flats (the yellow and pink ‘houses’ are a single unit). The pretend corner tower hides a chimney behind it from public view [Courtesy of the author].

In addition, Portmeirion’s picturesque visual variety is created not only by the many stage-like settings dotted throughout the village, which makes the project resemble the kind of model village once common at international exhibitions, but also by the ‘rescued’ buildings from elsewhere that over time transformed it into what some called a ‘Home for Fallen Buildings’. Often derided at the time as tacky, this strategy by Williams-Ellis now feels like a forward-looking initiative in terms of preserving and adapting historic buildings threatened with demolition. Yet this eclecticism also meant that Portmeirion sacrificed some of its own potential value as an architectural museum, as was observed by Lewis Mumford, one of Williams-Ellis’ closest friends [21: p. 91]. The pieces that Williams-Ellis collected span from a seventeenth-century plaster ceiling and mullioned windows from Emral Hall in Flintshire, through to the remains of a fireplace from Dawpool Hall on Merseyside (Figure 22), the latter designed by Richard Norman Shaw. These types of building fragments were happily incorporated and displayed in Portmeirion, being mainly found around the Central Piazza, and often repainted in bright colours like the rest of the village.

Figure 22 

Photograph of the fireplace when it was in Dawpool Hall, a country house near to Liverpool by Norman Shaw that was then demolished [Courtesy of Portmeirion Ltd].

With its vivid variations in colour and scale, and the eclectic mixture of building styles, the overall affect that Portmeirion created for me – and indeed it would seem for most visitors – is that of a playful and theatrical place. The village is clearly intended as a cheerful creation, mirroring Clough Williams-Ellis’ personality and his approach to architectural practice. It represents the work of exuberantly creative artist, something that Mumford referred to when describing Williams-Ellis as ‘the very paragon of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, never more serious than when he is at play, or more playful than when he is serious’ [22: p. ix].

Clough Williams-Ellis’ multifaceted career as a writer, architect, preservationist, and jester might make it appear that he rarely took himself seriously. Yet his characteristics, as Nigel Harrison argues, were more akin to those of the flâneur, an ‘inhabitant and archetype of the modern city, always observing, always spectating, never still’ [23: p. 202]. Furthermore, Harrison feels that the Homo Ludens aspect of Williams-Ellis was a vital fragment in his polyvocality that becomes evident in the fabric of Portmeirion. For a start, the whole design of the village must be understood as a performance stage in which colourful and deceitful buildings, such as the Campanile, become dramatic gestures which introduced a sense of play. It is also an aspect of the Homo Ludens persona of Williams-Ellis that the circulation patterns in Portmeirion offer many alternatives vistas and routes for visitors to choose from as they walk around.

Whilst Harrison’s analysis is useful in explaining Williams-Ellis’ relationship to Portmeirion, it fails to recognise that its incorporation of fallen buildings and other found elements is also an example of heritage commodification – however, not as mere souvenirs or objects that are presented to satisfy feelings of nostalgia, but rather as part of an imaginative personal collection by Williams-Ellis. As Susan Stewart has pointed out about the general principle involved, ‘the collection is a form of art as play, a form involving the reframing of objects within a world of attention and manipulation of context’ [24]. In this regard, Portmeirion needs to be seen as the result of Williams-Ellis’ collecting habit over the years, a prolonged kind of play activity that involved experimenting with and inventing relationships with building materials, and in which each element of his collection is used to work with others to create a new whole.

Unravelling the Place (4th June 2019, Portmeirion)

After spending a couple of nights at Portmeirion, I steadily realised that the day-trip visitors and the longer-stay residents experience the place in two different ways. The first group usually arrives in the morning and stays for only a few hours, perhaps until the village closes for the day. They walk, eat, and explore Portmeirion while surrounded by a host of other visitors, tour guides and guardians. In contrast, the residents or guests who stay on for a night (or more) find themselves in the village once everybody but the hotel staff have left, and they discover that it is only then, when empty, that the place more easily comes to life. This observation echoes something that Williams-Ellis also considered to be a fundamental piece of Portmeirion’s essence, when he explained that the ‘colourful movement up and down the flights of steps and along the vistas is definitely essential … this artificial landscape is only alive and meaningful when it is being used’ [21: p. 10]. In this way, what makes Portmeirion what it is today is not the eccentrically colourful buildings or the beautiful surrounding woodlands, but rather the feel of the village during its quieter state of occupation, as I was eventually detected on my last day there (Figure 23).

Figure 23 

Photograph of ‘Battery Square’ at Portmeirion as taken on 3rd June 2019 [Courtesy of the author].

Clough Williams-Ellis’ vision for Portmeirion was to a large extent influenced by the inventive designs of Edwin Lutyens, and by the latter’s belief in the sheer, joyful pleasures of architecture. The village, when viewed as the framework for Williams-Ellis’ architectural practice, is comparable to Edwin Lutyens’ idea of ‘vivreations’, a neologism that Lutyens coined to describe all of the enlivening, light-hearted activities such as dancing, singing, joking, and making drawings that amuse all ages. As such, the contribution of Portmeirion, considering that Williams-Ellis’ career was always predicated on the desire to work for a wider community, should not merely be understood as an architect acting as a socially detached flâneur, as it is conventionally understood, but rather as a different kind of flâneur whose play is – as Zygmunt Bauman writes – sufficient enough ‘to make others play, to see others as players, to make the world as play … one may say: the job of the flâneur is to rehearse the world as a theatre, life as a play’ [25: p. 145–146].

When viewed from this perspective, an experience of Portmeirion involves us in more than we are aware of, echoing a concept theorised by Hans George Gadamer when he talked about the characteristics of play within a work of art. Gadamer suggests that both games and artworks ‘appear as forms of self-movement … which requires a playing along with’ [26]. In other words, Portmeirion shows that by establishing and playing with a dialectic dialogue between a place and its buildings, visitors, residents, guardians, and so on, that it is only then an architect’s intentions can be drawn together. This insight promotes a reading of Portmeirion as an interactive, communicative event which demonstrates that architecture is a form of art which is best able to satisfy those who practising it if they adopt unconventional, even unfashionable, methods.

Reflections

Portmeirion, as the lifelong project of Clough Williams-Ellis, has been cherished throughout the years by many British nationals, often being visited by them first during their childhood summer holidays and then later during weekend getaway trips. On the contrary, as a foreign tourist and researcher who was alien to cultural references such as The Prisoner, my first encounter with Portmeirion came more than 5,000 miles away through a popular US podcast. Likewise, the image I had constructed in my mind after reading numerous academic and popular journals, books, touristic guides, and so on, was that of a weird pre-Disneyland resort disconnected from reality, despite the fervent hope of Williams-Ellis was that its actual message was that humanity and nature could co-exist and not be in opposition.

As described above, Williams-Ellis developed Portmeirion without any fixed or comprehensive masterplan. The real purpose behind his ‘architectural mongrel’ was to create a seemly design that would make the case for the environmental protection of rural coastal areas – an aesthetic intention plainly evident in his simple, consciously naïve, early-1920s sketch models for the village (Figure 24). Williams-Ellis established three specific objectives for the project: to develop a beautiful site without defiling it; to demonstrate that architectural good manners could be profitable; and to provide a populist, ‘light-opera’ approach to explain the otherwise seeming mysteries involved in appreciating architecture and landscape design. It can be argued that the first two aims have proved successful, as made explicit by Portmeirion’s fabric today and various small-scale interventions that have helped to preserve the Gwyllt, a 70-acre sub-tropical forest, in a symbiotic and sustainable relationship that minimizes the environmental impact of construction by using materials efficiently.

Figure 24 

Revised sketch model in the 1920s made by Clough Williams-Ellis to show the main central feature at Portmeirion [Source: The Architects’ Journal, 6th January 1926, p. 65].

On the other hand, the ‘light-opera’ approach and the ‘Cloughing-up’ of the buildings at Portmeirion are unconventional ways to call for less selfishness and more collaboration in architecture via the act of ‘playing along with’ buildings, sculptures, landscapes, artifacts and people. One could argue that because of these factors, the public imaginary of Portmeirion has been reduced nowadays to a ‘touristic destination and beautiful pocket of madness’, or merely the stage-set of The Prisoner, as publicised throughout the village by statues, souvenir shops and tour guides. Moreover, additions and modifications to the village made since Williams-Ellis’ death, such as the toilet block next to the Tollgate, are a clear misinterpretation of the village’s imaginative qualities (Figure 25). The design for these toilets is nothing more than a yellow-painted cube with some fake windows and green-turquoise decorations that attempt, unsuccessfully, to mimic the theatricality of other buildings in the village. Such moves make it even more necessary to highlight the real values and intentions behind Portmeirion’s seemingly absurd architecture, given that its aesthetic and environmental lessons seem ever more pertinent now. Otherwise, the village’s architectural importance could quite easily come to be forgotten in the future, having been displaced by its role in a few fanciful and less meaningful fictions.

Figure 25 

Public toilets at Portmeirion’s entrance showing the fanciful painted illusions on its façade, such as false side windows and a trompe l’oeil niche with flower vase [Courtesy of the author].