Yesterday I visited Portmeirion with some friends. It took me till this morning to work out what I didn’t like about it.
In case you don’t know Portmeirion is a village constructed on a private peninsula overlooking Traeth Bach tidal estuary in North Wales. It was built by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis to show how a beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it.
I think he achieved his goal. It is very, very pretty. But very, very odd at the same time.
The place feels a bit like ‘toy town’ but there is nothing miniature about it. It also has a slightly ‘disney’ feel to it: lots of bright colours, especially aquamarine which seems to have been the designer’s favourite colour. There is also an incredibly eclectic mix of architectural styles and cultural references. There are ‘churches’ that look baroque, onion like domes like you see in Russia, a Buddha in one corner, some Thai dancers on poles in another corner. ‘North Wales’ (grey slate and wet sheep), it’s not!
The guy had a serious obsession with little cubby hole spaces and peek-a-boo windows. But that said he was also a master of the ‘satisfying vista’ every corner you turned made you want to take you camera out.
As you enter you go under an arch (the first of many) with a coat of arms and the motto for the Order of the Garter “Honi soit qui mal y pense” which roughly means ‘Shamed be he who thinks ill of it’ so at great risk of ‘shame’ I dare to venture a view that’ s not entirely negative but is not wholly positive either! Go and see it for yourself – don’t let me put you off, it’s worth the entrance fee and at the very least it’s made me think but my personal conclusion is that it’s an odd sort of a village but an excellent metaphor.
Why didn’t I like it? It’s a place with no ‘soul’, it has no history. The buildings that look ancient are in fact quite recent and all this gives the place a sense of sham or artifice. But it is so visually impressive, it took me a while to work out what was wrong. The buildings that appeared to be for worship, felt empty which of course they were. It made me realise you cannot design a ‘soul’ into a building – the soul of a place comes from the people and the history. Step into any 11th Century church and you will sense the soul of the place: you can kneel where people and communities have prayed their way through wars, famines and plagues. There is no substitute for that. Portmeirion was beautiful but ’empty’ of that indefinable feeling you get when you are in a place full of history.
Metaphorically Portmeirion reminds me that a pretty exterior can never make up for a starved interior life. Our story, our ability to love and be loved, in short, our interior life are what make us people of character and beauty.
In the end my favourite photo taken on the day turned out to be of the natural, rather than created splendour.
‘Consider the lilies of the field, the reap not neither do they sow, yet not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these’ Matthew 6:29