Portmeirion, the guide told us, was the brainchild of the architect and conservationist, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. The project had been a long time in hatching… once the idea had been conceived, he waited twenty years in order the purchase the little bay where the village now stands. Building began in 1925 and continued until 1972. All that was well and good, but told us little beyond the bare facts.
It was when the guide moved on that things began to fall into place. Many of the building materials… even some of the buildings themselves… had been rescued and recycled from estates and locations around the country, to save them from demolition and destruction. The gilded Buddha had come from the film set of Inn of the Sixth Happiness. A cherub had been left on the doorstep… the facade of a portico was once a fireplace… That explained the bizarre juxtaposition of styles and details and cast them in an entirely new and sympathetic light.
We began to take more notice of those details and the mystery deepened. Windows that we had thought would cast such beautiful traceries of light into their rooms were revealed to be no more than paint and plaster… masterpieces of trompe l’oeil….like the three arched and three round windows that grace one side of the villa. Carved reliefs were the same visual trickery, no more than flat paint, many of them created by Williams-Ellis’ daughter.
It was not until we reached higher ground that we really noticed the rooflines that sported only fancy facades and the front halves of finials and cupolas… Perspective makes a house the size of a small bungalow look like a mansion. In fact, the whole village is a beautiful illusion…but we had a feeling there was more going on even than that.
Williams-Ellis’ vision was to create a village entirely in harmony with the natural landscape, instead of following the prevailing fashion for subduing it. That explained the villas cascading down cliffs, and the rocks and tree roots running through buildings. He was passionate about the landscape and served on many government committees, advising on conservation and railing against the urbanisation of the rural landscape. He had also been instrumental in setting up the National Parks in England and Wales that preserve our natural heritage. Clearly, the man had a passion for the land.
Yet we wondered about his attitude to authority. As an architect, he was, by definition, happy to impose his own authority on the landscape…and yet it was obvious that he both loved and respected the land and its natural beauty. At Portmeirion, it seems as if he willingly embraced the authority of Nature.
On the other hand, there are many traditional symbols of authority in the works of art and craft dotted around the village. Eagles and lions are traditional symbols of Empire, and we had already noted that all the lions seemed to have rather pained or strained expressions… Was the architect making a subtle point here? Would he have missed the fact that his Eastern lion was holding a severed right arm… the same arm missing from his Buddha? Maybe that has raised a wry smile.
Perhaps it was no more than coincidence. Just what was going on here? There was the yacht that had never sailed, moored to the jetty and named ‘friends reunited’… yet the yacht is made of concrete and is part of the jetty. There is the lighthouse in the wood. A myriad icons and fragments of religious architecture in a village with no place of worship… a loose cannon on the hilltop, pointing towards Harlech Castle. Could a Commander of the British Empire really be cocking such a snook at established authority?
Perhaps the most telling detail was the shrine to the architect himself. A bust of Williams-Ellis looks out on his creation from behind a perpetual flame in the Town Hall, where wedding ceremonies are held. The bust is flanked by two laughing masks… and sits between the ladies and gentlemen’s toilets. And his funeral arrangements made a point too; his ashes were sent up in a rocket to become part of a firework display over the estuary… He had certainly had something to say.
Somehow this seemed to be tying in very well with the theme of our visit. Steve had suggested we consider the notion of authority and, drawing upon the character of The Prisoner, whether, if our lives were faced with an imposed change, we would ‘accept’ or ‘resist’.
You could debate that question all day, but not, I think, until you had defined your terms. Life offers us change at every moment and many of them would count as imposed. They occur without a ‘by your leave’ and may be part of a natural evolution or something that turns your life upside down. Accept or resist? It is not, I believe, a straightforward choice.
The change itself may be irresistable and immutable… the authority may be as unassailable as an earthquake. Death is a change and cannot be resisted when it strikes… but nor can a sunrise. To resist the unresistable seems a futile act of rebellion, a mere exercise of wilfulness. Yet there are many changes that need not and indeed should not be accepted. Choices are to be made, even within those absolutes that define who we are and will become and the exercise of free will is part of our purpose.
It all reminds me of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The surreal landscape of Portmeirion echoed the debate. The authority of Nature had been accepted here; the rocks, trees and curves of the land itself were allowed to define and shape the vision of Man as buildings grew around them. Details were added as architectural items were simply left at the gate and choices were made about their disposition. And yet, the vision of the architect… his authority… now clothes the landscape. Perhaps there is a lesson in that… that where Man and Nature can work in harmony, deferring to each other’s authority for a greater good, change can be beautiful.