Somewhere, hidden away on the coast of North Wales, a small village occluded by dense forests rose out of tightly packed cliffs. Huddled around a plaza that served as a giant chessboard, sending fingers of meandering paths past medieval buildings out into the surrounding landscape, and rising in a collage of palaces, follies, and fragmented manor houses, this mythical little village embodied everything that fascinated us as young architects learning the discipline in the early 1980s. It was the Avalon of Postmodernism, the Shangri-La of complexity and contradiction, and the very embodiment of “Less is a Bore.”
Finally, this summer, almost 40 years since I graduated from architecture school, I was able to visit Portmeirion, that mystical treasure trove of buildings. Though, of course, smaller than in its mythic reputation might indicate, it reminded me of what made Postmodernism so exciting, while also making the movement’s limitations clear.
Limitation, or enclosure and seclusion, are actually why many people beyond the cult of architecture know about Portmeirion: It has served as the set for many a television show and film, most notably The Prisoner, an ITV series that ran in 1967 in England and in 1968on CBS in the U.S. The show was a cult classic like The Twilight Zone, especially, it seems, for budding architects such as myself. As the series’ title implies, Portmeirion serves here as a penal camp, however pleasant and colorful, from which the retired secret service agent played by Patrick McGoohan cannot escape.
In actuality, Portmeirion today is a theme park. You wind your way through the Welsh countryside (it is not near anywhere, which is part of its charm), park in a giant lot, show your ticket, and wander through its restricted environment. Tripadvisor warns that there is ”not much to do” there—just some tea shops and trinket stores—certainly not in comparison to the themed environments that have built on this model.
What Portmeirion is actually meant to be is a bit of a mystery, or rather the subject of ongoing debate. It was the private project of a local architect, Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, who spent most of his life (from 1925 until he died in 1975) collecting existing buildings, imagining other ones, and assembling the pieces into a picturesque arrangement on land in the Welsch village of Gwynedd that he had inherited from his father. Portmeirion's ostensible purpose was to be a hotel, or rather a resort spread out among various structures (it still functions in that manner) based on the Italian fishing villages that were then turning into destinations for the British and other travelers. The assembly of the pieces there was also part of Williams-Ellis' major interest in the preserving and documenting historic structures. Portmeirion is as much a place that expresses an obsessive love of architecture as an economic or historic endeavor.
Portmeirion is a concatenation of different colors, forms, and references that unfolds in a theatrical version of a small village. As you stroll down from the entrance, the outside world disappears behind rocks, trees, and shrubs, focusing you on structures covered in different colors of stucco, often on the same building. A façade can contain red and blue planes, for instance, with a yellow wall jamming into it, with no apparent logic other than to break up the masses and distract you from anything that might make you look for coherence.
Willams-Ellis balances those moments of exuberance with forms that look like, and sometimes in fact are, bits and pieces of English vernacular structures. That they range from Elizabethan manor houses with stretched-out bay windows whose glass-in-lead windows are framed in stone, to farm buildings that have bulked up to several levels, to white-painted Neoclassical temples perched on the rocks, is not as jarring as it would seem exactly because the architect manages the breaks and connections with a surfeit of elements that obscure what otherwise would be grating discordances.
There is also the sheer delight of moments that veer off into pure fantasy, such as the rocks framed by almost Yves Klein-blue-painted arches lit from the side by another arch painted red. Or there is the white chimney, penetrated by a polite little window with an arched light, shooting up past yellow stucco walls, to climb over a wood-batten façade. Then you might encounter the modest little white-washed structure with ends that erupt into a deep red façade with a gabled top that distorts into volutes—the whole object tied together with metal details like gutters and lamps painted Tiffany blue.
In the central area, as well as in many of the larger buildings, the architecture does become more coherent and focused, balancing the continual staccato rhythm of windows, materials, and grand ornament applied to small structures with whole temple fronts, pieces of imported castles, and the lawn at the center where that chessboard holds sway. From there, all those buildings and their moments crawling up the cliffs do not so make sense as they add up to a composition of such complexity and contradiction as to delight the eye and evoke a host of other places far off in time and place.
That is what made Portmeirion such a touchstone of Postmodernism when theoreticians and architects from Robert Venturi and Charles Moore in the U.S. to Charles Jencks and Paolo Portoghesi in Europe began praising the delight of a layered, referential, and purely fun architecture in the 1960s. Here was a proof of concept, far more elaborate than the few homes and drawings that the movement produced 20 years later. Not only that, Portmeirion had withstood the test of time, continued to attract crowds, and was familiar to millions from television.
In other words, Postmodernism could work.
Except that it did not work, at least not literally. Portmeirion was an isolated theme park and resort you had to pay good money to visit. Its approach became embodied in places like Disneyland and, eventually, the equally isolated suburban theme parks New Urbanism plonked down in cornfields and swamps almost as isolated as the Welsh countryside. The movement also made architects more introspective. For all the claims that Postmodernism was a form of populism that spoke in the language of vernacular and sought to delight rather than educate the masses, the beauty of its forms and the cleverness of its references were unavailable to those who didn’t know their Andrea Palladio from their John Russell Pope. Moreover, to truly create such intricate compositions you needed craft and time that only the rich had available. Postmodernism’s shopping malls and public spaces quickly fell into disrepair, while its appropriations by Disney and the wealthy of East Hampton continue apace.
Walking through Portmeirion this summer, none of that mattered to me. I felt like a kid again, or rather the young adult I was when I was first learning to keep Palladio and Pope apart. Everywhere I turned, there was a moment that put a smile on my face, either because it evoked some black and white slide I had seen in my first architectural history class or because of the sheer pleasure of color, form, and texture clashing, mixing, and stacking up all around me. Portmeirion is not a good model for anything, but it is a good prison of architecture, condensing, disciplining, and containing all of its pieces in one place. Go there and liberate some of them, set them loose in the world to be recidivist evokers of invention and the pure play of form in light, and you will have used William-Ellis’ preserve to its best purpose.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
Read more: Aaron Betsky has traveled the globe this summer, exploring Assemble's neighborhood activism in Liverpool, disruptive ways to exhibit art at MVRDV's Depot in Rotterdam, the innovative scrappiness of Bangkok's architecture, and his preference for minimalism in a sea of bodies at the 2022 Venice Biennale.