The most useful way of approaching Portmeirion is through the concept of the picturesque. Williams-Ellis (or, as everyone calls him, Clough) explains how he liked sailing around the Mediterranean and enjoyed the view of coastal towns from the sea. He strenuously denied, however, that Portmeirion was based on Portofino, and indeed the whole point about Portofino is that the buildings are down at water level (Fig. 1). He tried to buy an island but couldn’t find one and settled on an promontory, but one with a spectacular view of one of the finest tidal estuary in Wales, the Dwyrd Estuary, which was also not far from his home. But the fact is that the initial buildings are wholly picturesque, or, if you like, scenographic, in that they were designed as exteriors to be seen from the sea (but also from the land), and an early drawings is explicitly labelled so (Figs 2 and 3). The view from the other side of the estuary today (Fig. 4) shows how effectively the original group of buildings work in this way.
The interiors are an accidental by product of this design process. The best of the original buildings, such as the Campanile (Figs 5–7), is by definition devoid of an interior, while Clough stated explicitly that he built the domed building or Pantheon 1961-62 (Fig. 8), because he believed that every coastal town should have one, as many of those on the Ligurian coast do. The interior of this dome, however, is deeply uninteresting: it is like a domed version of a school shelter shed (for those old enough to remember when schoolyards had such things.)
But this insight needs to be modified a little. What works better that the distant view in Fig. 4 is the aerial photo that is used on the cover of the book Portmeirion, by Jan Morris et. al (2006) (Fig. 9). This can be compared to a photograph of a model that Clough made before he bought the peninsula, that it represents the ideal that he was seeking (Fig. 10). Both are necessarily seen from above, and both have an intriguing use of massing and variations in height and alignment, and a multiplicity of vertical accents. This model looks more German than Italian, but a German hill town: it is hard to think of anywhere in Europe that looks like this and is on the water. The gateway, with its double rounded bastions and curved tile roof looks incredibly German (Fig. 11), although Clough used such rounded forms in his other buildings are they are supposed to have roots in a local vernacular, although I can’t think of examples.
The gateway is built into another building with an open roofed tower space that in Italy would have been called an altana. From the gateway a path runs to the main ‘castle’, with a road at right angles leading to a jetty with a lighthouse. The main pathway leads to a tower with a passageway running through it, again very German. The roof follows a gentle curve, as found in his other building, with an oversized and unusually vertical lantern, proportioned similarly to the one on the domed building much later (Fig. 12). This over-scaling and over-verticalising of such a feature is therefore an expression of Clough’s taste. There are two more towers, a cluster of connecting buildings (some of which could almost be Scottish), all ending in a round-ended building similar in form with the gateway towers that might be read as a church were it not that Clough had no interest in religion (one of the things that makes him so likeable). (He resisted efforts to turn the domed building into a religious or quasi-religious building.) He was probably thinking of something like his design for St. Brothen’s Hall, Llanfrothen (1911) (Fig. 13).
He was not much interested in history either, as the lack of clear typological identity of the rest of these buildings makes clear. There is no hint architecturally that this was once a fortified castle or anything like that. The relative breadth of the towers suggest that he was already thinking of then as hotel rooms.
The perspective view on the preliminary plan drawn to attract financial backers (Figs 14, 15) shows how this was rethought with the new site in mind. Essentially it is a cluster of three interconnected building on a bastioned terrace set at a cliff edge. There is a broad tower with entrance passageway with a vernacular building with a skillion roof built up to it, connected on the other side to a conventional chimneyed building of eighteenth-century type on an angled plan.
By the time Clough came to start construction in 1928 the tower had changed function to become, not a German gateway tower, but an Italian Bell Tower, or Campanile (Figs 5–7) that is too small to have useful interiors. Clough wrote that ‘it was imperative that I should open my performance with a dramatic gesture of some sort.’ The need to create a striking architectural image that would proclaim the nature of the venture, like an architectural sign, a company logo, or indeed a three-dimensional equivalent of the prospectus drawing prevailed over the need for useful accommodation. The village is sometimes called Italianate, but this is the only building that is meaningfully so. Even then we have to be careful: the Serliana (as a Palladian window) is also an English Palladian motif, the volutes near the lantern are more Dutch in inflection than Italian (and characteristic of Clough), the concave lantern roof is un-Italian, leaving only the buttresses which could be as much Hawksmoor as Italian. This leaves the principal Italian element being the idea of a detatched campanile itself.
The cluster of buildings around the campanile are by far the most picturesque in the whole complex, but Clough’s initial conception also conceived a central piazza, really a village green, in pictorial terms. The preliminary plan designed with financial backers in mind (Figs 14, 16) shows a perspective of this area that distorts the expansive lawn and loggia building at the right as shown on the plan. This shows a cluster of buildings that manage to retain eighteenth-century forms a symmetries which being clustered together picturesquely, rather like Princes Charles’ Poundbury, which respond to Clough’s evident concern that to make a picturesque composition buildings need to be physically connected.
The actual Piazza was only created in the early 1960s where there had been a tennis-court and incorporates pre-existing buildings going back to the nineteenth century, such as The Mermaid (built c. 1840, dressed by Clough in 1926) (Fig. 17). Some buildings, such as The Angel (1926) (Figs 18–20), part of the early construction but a little separate from the Campanile group of buildings, display those rounded Arts and Crafts forms seen in the model, while the Town Hall (1937-38) (Figs 21, 22) plays with Jacobean because made from salvage, while other are Neo-Georgian or play with Dutch gables reflecting his later architectural taste. One supposes that the later buildings (apart from the domed building) were designed with the view from the ground in a gradual process of infilling, when the picturesque impulse was waning.