On the Northern side of Wales, the small town of Portmeirion rises from the hills beside the water into a quaint collection of brightly colored buildings each bearing a percentage of inherently sustainable components. Nearly every building in the coastal spot has been built with pieces of older buildings reclaimed and integrated for a second architectural life. But despite the fact that the use of reclaimed materials and their ability to bolster a growing deconstruction industry is steadily on the rise, Portmeirion’s building stock was not built recently—or even in the last decade—but rose from the ground over half a century ago.
This strange relic of early reclamation was the vision of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who stood as one of Britain’s early environmentalists known for promoting architecture’s ability to respect, not compromise, the natural landscape. Begun in 1925 on his own property, the port town was his personal project that he slowly expanded over time, adding new buildings, hidden nooks and garden alcoves. Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright (also of Welsh decent) reportedly visited Portmeirion in his 1956 trip to Britain and tipped his hat to the success of Sir Clough’s efforts.
The walls of the Bell Tower hold stones from a 12th century castle inhabited by Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of North Wales and ancestor to Sir Clough himself. Parts of the façade on the large domed structure affectionately known as “The Pantheon” were harvested from an English manor while the “Gothic Pavilion” got much of its material stock from the 19th century demolition of Nercwys Hall in Flintstine. Much like the Cloisters in New York City, the front of the “Bristol Colonade” was dissembled and transported from its original home in Bristol after being damaged by bombing. Needles to say, the reuse of all of these materials avoided the mining and finishing of virgin material stock.
Upon a closer inspection the project can be recognized as a critique on the social norms of architecture of its time. The variety of sources that Williams-Ellis used to acquire materials results in a cornucopia of buildings with each holding hints of a different stylistic era of design. However, the true intrigue of the town is beyond the initial aesthetic reaction to a picturesque scene on a hillside.
The entire town holds a series of optical illusions that prompt mental recalibration of how the space is actually assessed and experience. The architect used tactics like forced perspective, gradient brick colors and warped proportions to create a village that appears to be larger in size from particular vantage points so that the perception of the streetscapes changes as one moves deeper through the maze of streets. Numerous windows on different structures are actually painted on.
Perhaps Portmeirion’s greatest achievement is the creation of a built environment that forces its occupants to question preconceptions about the world that they inhabit. As author Craig Conley points out, the setting is more of a virtual reality. The project exists as a series of contradictions that allow nothing to be taken at face value. The village has a town hall, but no residents and a lighthouse with no light. It is a port on an estuary too shallow for most watercraft. The result is a series of opportunities for expectations to be defied which, in turn, prompts visitors into a mindset of inquisition.
Sir Clough utilized an architect’s ability to incite and guide sensory response to cause inhabitants to challenge their preconceptions and prior knowledge of architecture as he played with materiality, color and scale. Similarly, one of the most imposing obstacles for sustainability (and many other progressive deviations from social norms) to accomplish is getting people to challenge the status quo of how we live and perceive the use of products/buildings/cities in new ways.
Some could argue that Portmeirion is little more than a spectacle—a Disneyland of sorts that garners tourist appreciations merely as an unusual experience, but I would argue its is more. One important difference may be that Portmeirion is not about being entertained by what you know is fake, but instead about guiding one through a landscape that makes you question your own perception of reality. This is a practice that our culture should employ more often given the number of aspects of our society that are in need of reassessment.
The familiar methods we use to construct buildings, commute to work, heat our homes or dispose of waste are often chosen at face value rather than questioning our perception of new possibilities for improvement. The first step in finding new solutions can be acknowledging that the a better solution is possible, if not necessary.