Portmeirion, Wales From the Imagination of Sir Clough

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Playful designs by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in Portmeirion, Wales

Planned resort community of Portmeirion, Gwynedd, North Wales, United Kingdom
Portmeirion, Gwynedd, North Wales, United Kingdom. Photo by Martin Leigh/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Every September Portmeirion, Wales plays host to Festival No6, billed as a "festival unlike any other" -- no doubt because the fanciful Welsh village is itself a fantasy. The vacation village of Portmeirion nestles on the northern coast of Wales, but there's nothing Welsh in the flavor of its architecture. No stone cottages here. Instead, the hillside overlooking the bay is dotted with candy-colored houses which suggest sunny Mediterranean landscapes. There are even swaying palm trees around the tinkling fountains.

Portmeirion is riddled with anachronisms. Greek gods mingle with gilded figures of Burmese dancers. Modest stucco bungalows are decked with arcaded porches, balustraded balconies, and Corinthian columns. It's as though the designer tossed 5,000 years of architectural history along the shore, without a care for symmetry, accuracy, or continuity.

Viewers of the 1960s television series The Prisoner will find some of the landscapes eerily familiar. The bizarre prison kingdom where actor Patrick McGoohan encountered surreal adventures was, in fact, Portmeirion. In the TV show, the sense of geographical and temporal displacement suggests that this village was created by a madman.

But there was nothing crazy about Portmeirion's designer, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. His lifelong concern was with environmental preservation. By building Portmeirion on his private peninsula in Snowdonia, Wales, Sir Clough hoped to show that architecture can be beautiful and fun...without defacing the landscape. Even American architect Frank Lloyd Wright paid a visit in 1956, just to see what Clough was up to. Moreover, Portmeirion became an exercise in historic restoration. Many of the structures were pieced together from buildings destined for demolition. The village became known as a repository for fallen architecture.

Despite these high-minded intentions, however, Portmeirion is, most of all, entertaining. Clough Williams-Ellis was a master of illusion, and his designs confuse, delight, and deceive. How? Take this photo tour to sample a few of Sir Clough's creations.

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The Piazza in Portmeirion, Wales

The Piazza Village Center, Portmeirion, Wales
The Piazza Village Center, Portmeirion, Wales. Photo by VisitBritain/Britain on View/Britain On View Collection/Getty Images

Originally the Piazza was a tennis court, but since 1966 the area has been a quiet paved area with a blue tiled pond, a fountain, and lavish flower beds. Along the southern edge of the Piazza, two columns support gilded figures of Burmese dancers. A low stone stairway climbs to the Gloriette—a playful structure named after the grand monument at the Schönbrunn Palace near Vienna.

Built in the mid-1960s, Portmeirion's Gloriette is not a building, but a decorative facade. Five trompe l'oeil windows surround the open doorway. The four columns are the work of 18th century architect Samuael Wyatt, salvaged from the colonnade of Hooton Hall, Cheshire.

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The Bridge House in Portmeirion, Wales

Bridge House in Portmeirion, Wales
Bridge House in Portmeirion, Wales. Photo by Martin Leigh/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Image (cropped)

Built between 1958 and 1959, Bridge House seems larger than it really is because of its tapering walls. This view faces the parking area. When visitors pass through the archway, they encounter their first breathtaking view of the village.

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Bristol Colonnade in Portmeirion, Wales

Bristol Colonnade bathhouse from Bristol, England moved to Portmeirion, Wales
Bristol Colonnade in Portmeirion, Wales. Photo by John Freeman/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Built in about 1760, the Colonnade stood in front of a Bristol bathhouse in England. It was falling into decay when Portmeirion's creator moved the structure to Portmeirion—piece by piece.in 1959.

Several hundred tons of delicate masonry were disassembled and transported to the Welsh village. Every stone was numbered, and replaced according to precise measurements.

Portmeirion designer Sir Clough Williams-Ellis didn't mind when visitors called his quirky village Home for Fallen Buildings. He wrote: "...I am often sent, and always gratefully follow up, news of impending demolitions of architectural interest, whence have resulted the most elegant Bristol Colonnade, the Normal Shaw façade… and other minor bits and pieces about the place."

An inscription reads: "This colonnade, built circa 1760 by the Quaker copper smelter William Reeve, stood before his bathhouse at Arnos Court, Bristol. Damaged by bombs, it had fallen to decay and although scheduled as an Ancient Monument, Her Majesty's Minister of Works approved its removal on condition that it should be rescheduled. Admired by its alert contemporary Horace Walpole for its grace as a Classical composition, enriched by Gothick detail, it was also held in regard by the Council for the Preservation of Ancient Bristol whose good offices and the generosity of its former owners, the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company have made possible its presentation at Portmeirion."

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Promenade at Portmeirion, Wales

Promenade atop Bristol Colonnade leads to buildings in village of Portmeirion in Wales
Promenade atop Bristol Colonnade leads to buildings in village of Portmeirion in Wales. Photo by Charles Bowman/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, today recognized as one of the United Kingdom's first conservationists, wanted to show that "the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement." An assortment of urns and columns line the flower strewn Promenade atop the Bristol Colonnade—rebuilt in the Welsh hillside, overlooking The Piazza and the village.

The integration of walkways atop, over, through, and into Sir Clough's designed village ties together the themes of community and harmony within an Italian Renaissance architecture. Note the dome at the Promenade's end—replicating the famous Brunelleschi dome in Florence, Italy.

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Unicorn Cottage at Portmeirion, Wales

Unicorn Cottage behind colorful iron gat at Portmeirion, Wales
Unicorn Cottage at Portmeirion, Wales. Photo by Paul Thompson/Photolibrar Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

In this miniature of a stately Chatsworth home, architect and Portmeirion master planner Sir Clough Williams-Ellis creates the illusion of a classic Georgian estate. Elongated windows, long pillars, and an undersized gate make the Unicorn seem tall, but in fact it is a dressed-up bungalow built in the mid-1960s...and only one story high.

Vacationing within a fanciful, planned community was big business in the 1960s, after the success of California's Disneyland in 1955 and before the 1971 opening of Florida's Walt Disney World Resort. Sir Clough's idea of fantasy, however, took on more Italianate tone than Disney's mousechitecture. The Unicorn Cottage was a British-Italian experience in the Welsh countryside, to which we say, "Why not?"

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Hercules Gazebo at Portmeirion, Wales

Hercules Gazebo on Day 2 of Festival No6 at Portmeirion, Wales
Hercules Gazebo on Day 2 of Festival No6 at Portmeirion, Wales. Photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns Collection/Getty Images

Several cast iron mermaid panels, salvaged from the Old Seaman's Home in Liverpool, form the sides of the Hercules Gazebo, built in 1961-1962. But this playful facade is yet another example of architectural illusion—as a space to house mechanical equipment, the Gazebo disguises a generator.

For many years, the Hercules Gazebo was painted shocking pink. The structure is now a more subtle terra-cotta shade.

Since 2012, Portmeierion has been the site of an arts and music festival called Festival No6—named after the main character in The Prisoner, a 1960s television series filmed in Portmeirion. For one long, exhausting weekend in early September, Sir Clough's village is home to the quirky fringe who seek poetry, harmony, and a Mediterranean refuge in northern Wales.

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Cottages at Portmeirion, Wales

Bristol Colonnade beneath Chantry Row at Portmeirion, Wales
Bristol Colonnade beneath Chantry Row at Portmeirion, Wales. Photo by John Freeman/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Hotels and cottages dot the planned landscape of Portmeirion, just as they would in any village. Chantry Cottage, with its red-clay tile Italiante roof, sits high atop the hill, above the Bristol Colonnade and Promenade below. Built in 1937, Chantry is one of the earliest structures built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

Architect Clough Williams-Ellis moved amongst artists and artisans. He married the writer Amabel Strachey and fathered the artist/potter Susan Williams-Ellis, originator of Portmeirion Botanic Garden dinnerware. Sir Clough built the Chantry Cottage for the Welsh painter Augustus John, but today it's a "self-catering cottage sleeping nine."

But it all began with legendary mermaids, real or not. Dating from the 1850s, the Mermaid house was present on the peninsula when building began at Portmeirion. For many years it was used to house village staff. Sir Clough dressed up the cottage with an imposing metal canopy and the welcoming palm trees sprinkled throughout the village. Landscape design and Italianate architecture is how Sir Clough created the illusion that we are in sunny Italy...not in wet and windy North Wales. And it works.

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Craven, Jackie. "Portmeirion, Wales From the Imagination of Sir Clough." ThoughtCo, Dec. 24, 2016, thoughtco.com/portmeirion-wales-imagination-of-sir-clough-178233. Craven, Jackie. (2016, December 24). Portmeirion, Wales From the Imagination of Sir Clough. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/portmeirion-wales-imagination-of-sir-clough-178233 Craven, Jackie. "Portmeirion, Wales From the Imagination of Sir Clough." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/portmeirion-wales-imagination-of-sir-clough-178233 (accessed November 19, 2017).