Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Visitor

I recently visited the village of Portmeirion in Wales, along with my students from the the Electric Edens studio at UCA, Canterbury. The following are some observations from a (mostly rainy) couple of days in the peculiar, dinky and dream-like village in the Welsh hills. 

The first thing you realise when you arrive in Portmeirion, is that it isn't a village. Not a real one at least. The approach through narrow country lanes terminates in a landscaped coach-park and a security gate. Portmeirion is an attraction principally, and you have to pay to enter unless you are staying in the village itself or in one of the outlying cottages owned by the company.

Surveying the entrance gate are two dinky little classical pavilions which were the last buildings designed in Portmeirion by Clough Willians-Ellis, the village's bizarre, aristocratic founder.  Williams-Ellis was a successful if off-beat twentieth century architect specialising in traditional, mostly neo-Georgian designs. His long-cherished aim of designing a kind of architectural Shangri-La, came to fruition on a remote part of the Welsh coast, just a few miles from his ancestral home. He began it in the 1920's and made these, his last contribution, in the mid '70's. It sets the scene for the mix of surreal scale games, 'straight' Georgian pastiche, ad-hoc reconstruction and picturesque whimsy that defines the rest of Clough's entirely self-invented mock-village.


Once disembarked from your coach or car and divested of cash, you are free to walk your way into Portmeirion. Two deceptively tall tower-like houses extend over the entrance drive to form gateways in. One is vaguely Gothic in character and the other - which dominates views from the rest of the village - employs a lightweight Regency-classicism. Both are actually much smaller than they first appear and employ a two-thirds scale device that is initially highly disorientating. Perhaps, the most interesting thing about them though is the way they seem to grow out of the rock on which they sit, enrolling its authentic ruggedness within their fondant-fancy aesthetic. 

The scale games are repeated throughout Portmeirion. Attic storey windows are invariably false and the eye slowly gets used to the fact that all the houses are actually titchy, chalet scale dwellings. Having stayed in two of the ones within the village, I can say that the game of classical illusion is almost entirely confined to the exterior. Inside they are generally cheap'n'cheerful self-catering cottages.

The scale is in fact largely consistent within the village, meaning that like a model-railway, the only real disjunction is the presence of real people.

It has to be said that Portmeirion is also pretty shonkily built in places. Given the heavy rainfall in this part of Wales I was surprised that some of it hadn't been washed away entirely. There's a lot of roofing felt involved and the jauntily painted render looks like it needs pretty regular maintenance. Endearingly, Williams-Ellis was under few illusions about the authenticity of his creation. His description of the village in his enjoyably peculiar book Portmeirion: Its Form and Meaning, is exaggeratedly self-deprecating. 

He invented the term 'Cloughing-up' to describe his habit of taking bits of existing buildings and embellishing them with improvements and add-ons. You could equally describe this technique as cut'n'shut (clough'n'shut?) after the tactic of chopping up stolen cars and reassembling them to avoid identification. It's also a disappointingly underused approach in architecture, except by happy (or unhappy) accident. Here, a 'genuine' classical portico has been re-used as a gateway to the village's central square, stitched onto a garden wall and with a regency style door ingloriously appended to its rear. 

Occasionally, the cheapness of the means leads to an even more jolting shift in expectation. This jousting tent-like object turned out to be a crinkly-tin shelter for a miniature train that wanders around the forest on the edge of Portmeirion. Swags and trompe l'oeil effects were painted on corrugated iron in a way that was like an odd bit of stage-set that had gone astray from a production of Alice in Wonderland.

This object slightly fascinated me in fact, with its melancholic air of decay and oddly prosaic function. It reminded me too of that late 1960's taste for Edwardian whimsy familiar from Sergeant Pepper or the cover of Pink Floyd's Relics. 

Portmerion is a place almost entirely predicated on the idea of 'the view' and a visual sense of organisation. It may emanate from the British picturesque movement, but it also anticipates the experience of 20th century theme parks like Disneyland. It's unsurprising therefore that it became the setting for the 1960's series The Prisoner. It is eminently photogenic because it has been conceived as if the eye were a kind of camera. Objects are placed in order to set up a single carefully composed view, an illusion that entirely breaks down as one walks around. Its fairy-tale cuteness is also faintly sinister too of course. 

This privileging of the visual simultaneously embraced and rejected the role of the camera in our appreciation of landscape. As Clough Williams Ellis wrote: "Despite the cinema and cinerama, there is still, to me, an abiding magic in being able to command at will the whole surrounding landscape to display itself in successive images". For all his discomfort at twentieth century life, Williams-Ellis was an astute pioneer in the industry of mass-tourism and popular entertainment. He may have hated tarmac and bungalows, but he also championed and supported other, less classical versions of the holiday camp such as Butlins with an endearing lack of snobbery and elitism. 

It is as if the place has been roughly drawn from the memory of numerous trips abroad, a woozy dream of holidays past. As well as the Italian hill-town massing of campaniles and church domes, there are whitewashed, vaguely Meditteranean forms, clap-board Kentish houses, west country cottages, gothic castles and a grand Roman archway. The 18th Century upper-class vogue for building miniaturised, ersatz replicas of the landscapes witnessed on numerous European grand tours finds a more popular and kitsch manifestation here. 

Portmeirion can be both charming and challengingly tasteless. This strange, almost Memphis-esque paint job adorns the underside of one of the gatehouse building. The little noticeboard advertises wedding getaways and honeymoon stays.

Whilst there I failed to take a photograph of one of my favourite bits of the village - The Dome. This miniature, secular chapel was added due to what Williams-Ellis deemed a "dome deficiency", but it is the odd and somewhat grotesque entrance object that is more interesting. This is in fact a vast Elizabethan fireplace, bought from a country house demolition sale and stuck unceremoniously onto the front. This is one of the rare times that a scale disjunction occurs within the architecture and when the cute illusion becomes something more disorientating.

Inside there is very little except for a sweet little cascade of steps and another miniature building - a model inside a model inside a model - that forms a kind of altar piece. Fair enough really, because Willims-Ellis had no religious views and instead worshipped architecture. This is one of the rare interiors worth noting in Portmeirion. Generally, they seem pretty forgetable and - inevitably - rather pokey, with the exception of the fine hotel building which predated Williams-Ellis' ownership. 

Instead he specialised in external rooms, shaping and manipulating the landscape around buildings to provide numerous vantage points, shelters and places to sit. It's easy when wandering Portemeirion to get obsessed by this endless framing of views. Each vista leads to another, an almost endless series of vantage points that climb up and over buildings and promontories. Again, the organisation of the place both represents the memories of past travels and anticipates the construction of new ones.

The reveals of arches, openings and screens are almost invariably painted in a deep, electric shade of blue. This deliberately serves to emphasises the thinness of the architecture and gives everything a shallow, stage-set quality. In this Portmeirion seems an obvious precursor to the work of Charles Moore, who also used vestigial classical forms realised in a thin, scenographic mannerHe was also very good at inserting these forms into complex topographies. The vaguely psychedelic, Edwardian whimsy of a place like Portmeirion must have appealed to Moore's late sixties west coast sensibility.

As well as using bricolaged, as-found bits of architecture, Williams-Ellis was happy to work with the remains of the garden and grounds which he discovered on the site too. The tunnels of the former lead mine are co-opted into his obsessional composing of views and visual axis. In this case they also direct the view to a tower which also houses a camera obscura, a device which allows for the visual surveying of the whole of the village. 

The shameless pastiche of Portmeirion is almost not worth pointing out. In the flesh it is both more and less convincing than you might think. More because the illusion of an Italian hill town is actually very convincingly played out at the scale of site and landscape. This is one of the real joys of the village, the way that the buildings frame views, dramatise the landscape and grow out of the hillside. This is both artfully achieved and rather downplayed in contrast to the fanfare of the individual buildings.

Next to the entrance pavilions, as you pass out of Portmeirion, there's this, a half-fake, half-real window that seems to sum up much of the place. The bottom half of the window is painted on and includes a smudged hand print and the slightly ghostly impression of Clough Williams-Ellis' face looking mournfully out, as if trapped within his own slightly cheesy illusion. The half window actually serves an entirely pragmatic function as the building in which it occurs is a public toilet. The painted on bottom half fulfills Williams-Ellis' desire for Georgian proportions, however nefariously achieved.

I went to Portmeirion ready to delight in such moments of blatant inauthenticity, but came away rather more fascinated by the things about it that can't be fudged. It's combining of the real and the fake exists not only in literal bits of old buildings re-used, but in the spatial relationships between the buildings. This is both figurative metaphorical and directly physical. The techniques used to heighten appreciation of the artifice - the elevated views and serpentine routes, the exaggeratedly steep steps and escarpments - are an early, un-automated fairground ride. But they are also undeniably part of the repertoire of architecture. It looks most convincing from afar, as you arrive or leave on the train that runs around the estuary on which it lies. Then the pastel coloured towers, domes and houses seem both magical and plausible at the same time. 


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