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Cyburbian Emeritus

These days not everyone can have his own town. Here is an exception.

I first became aware of Portmeirion through an entry in Charles Jencks’ book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. It seemed like a very pretty place, and perhaps a bit surreal.


Portmeirion is in fact not post-modern but pre-modern, like the works of the present-day architect Quinlan Terry. “I don’t think we can ignore the Modern Movement,” declares Terry, “but I wouldn’t have minded at all if it hadn’t happened. I think the world would be a much nicer place.”


Were he alive today, the architect of Portmeirion would quietly concur and append perhaps this serenely pompous homily: "Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future.” This architect’s name is (Sir) Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis.


The coast of Wales is renowned for its beauty, especially in the district of Snowdonia, named for the tallest peak in The British Isles. Here, on the Irish Sea, Clough Williams-Ellis owned a peninsula about the size of a town. Being trained in architecture, he resolved to dedicate his life to the further beautification of his peninsula.


God had given both him and his peninsula a head start. By developing his estate, Clough reckoned he could enhance nature without descending to the gilding of lilies. He would do this through his well-developed faculty of taste.


From the Portmeirion website, http://www.portmeirion.wales.com/en/index.php:

Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, Kt. CBE. MC. LLD. FRIBA. FRTPI. FILA etc. (1883-1978). Born the second son of the Rev. John Clough Williams-Ellis and Hilda Greaves. Educated at Oundle School; Trinity College, Cambridge; the Architectural Association, London. Inherited Plas Brondanw, Merioneth in 1908.

Best known for Portmeirion (1925 to 1976) built on his own private peninsula on the coast of Snowdonia, where he built to show that “the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement” and that architectural good manners could be good business. His lifelong concern was with Architecture, Landscape Design, the protection of Rural Wales and Conservation generally and he strove at Portmeirion to give his ideas physical and practical expression. He fought for Beauty - "that strange necessity".



He was an influential advocate of the establishment of National Parks in England and Wales and was responsible for the demarcation of Snowdonia National Park’s boundary, which he presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1951:


He built for clients in Wales, England and Ireland and even Shanghai. His contribution to architecture has been considerable, although critics excessively sympathetic to modernism tended to ignore his achievements.

An exception was Frank Lloyd Wright, who perhaps inexplicably sought out Clough and his development when he came to visit his ancestral homeland, Wales:


A tireless campaigner for the environment, Clough was a founder member of both the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales ( of which he was president for twenty years). He was an advocate of rural preservation, amenity planning, industrial design and colourful architecture.

Today Portmeirion is a hotel in the shape of a town. It is owned by a Registered Charity called The Second Portmeirion Foundation. All the cottages in the village are let as part of the Portmeirion Hotel and the village also has several shops and restaurants, and is surrounded by the Gwyllt sub-tropical gardens and woodlands and miles of sandy beaches. Portmeirion is open all year round for both staying guests and day visitors. The Michelin Green Guide gives it three stars.



Clough built the original Portmeirion Hotel in 1926:



Additional buildings comprised a kind of self-contained feudal village for the people who made the beds and trimmed the hedges, but as demand for hotel rooms ramped up, the once fortunate serfs were evicted from paradise to go live in the real world. Paradise could command high rents.

The building below served for a time as a dormitory for the staff. It is now a cafe and hotel rooms, with the gas pump visible across the street.


The gas pump:


The village is laid out according to scenographic principles to derive maximum benefit from the site. Contrast this with the prescriptive, dead hand of zoning, which basically says that all places that share a zoning category are the same.



This yields an exquisite street level experience full of event and surprise because each building is free to be tailored to the particularities of its location vis-à-vis its site and its neighbors. You can easily see how the regularizing effect of zoning would destroy all these effects in a flash:


The picturesque at a pitch just short of kitsch.

Shakespeare on the terrace. Sculpture that anticipates Segal:


The Prisoner - Patrick McGoohan's enigmatic television series The Prisoner was filmed on location at Portmeirion in 1966-67.

Even the mailbox and public phone booth are extravagantly picturesque:



The parking lot features a fountain:


And of course, there are peacocks on the lawn (What did you expect?):


The whole thing is, of course, a gated community, and here is the gate:


People come here because they want to be in a pretty place.

The architecture is perhaps too relentlessly aristocratic to make a convincing village, except perhaps for the plutocrats of Luxembourg:


Hence the people who run it today (nonprofits!) can exact a handsome nightly tariff. Accommodation at Portmeirion is as follows, in pounds:


Hotel Peacock Suite/Castle Penthouse £235
Village de Luxe Suite/Castle Grand Room £185
Hotel Superior Room/Castle Superior Room or Suite £170
Hotel Standard Room/Village Superior Suite £150
Village Double or Twin Room £125
Village Family Suite (4)£250
Village Family Room (4)£155
Village Family Room (3)£150


Any two or more consecutive nights inclusive of 3 course dinner, accommodation and breakfast per person per night sharing:

Hotel Peacock Suite/Castle Penthouse £153
Village de Luxe Suite/Castle Grand Room £129
Hotel Superior Room/Castle Superior Room or Suite £123
Hotel Standard Room/Village Superior Suite £114
Village Double or Twin Room £102




Click here to discover more about Portmeirion's architecture and history, by reference to the interactive map reproduced above:

Clough did not often write about his own feelings. However, among his unpublished papers is a note written in his 90s entitled Report on X:

"He is narrowly un-emotional and even-tempered - only twice in his life having contrived to make a show of temper by deliberate intent. His dominating interests are visual, natural scenery - preferably dramatic, and architecture, in which latter, though academically ill-equipped, he nonetheless claims to have a natural instinct for responding to a site or a building’s requirements appropriately, and to have a judgement of proportions, particularly, that is unerring. He almost certainly has a weakness for splendour & display & believes that even if he were reduced to penury himself he would still hope to be cheered by the sight of uninhibited lavishness & splendour unconfined somewhere, which is why he feels that Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens or something like them should be spread around the civilised world giving everyone a taste of lavishness, gaiety and cultivated design.”
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Great shots and interesting info, ablarc. I used to love that show The Prisoner and it's cool to know now where it was shot.