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Utopia as a holiday destination

Charles Holland

Theme parks are perhaps the most practical way of experiencing utopia: you can leave before they invert to dystopia – usually

Walt Disney conceived the EPCOT centre in Florida as a genuine utopian experiment. The name stands for the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow and it was intended to be Disney’s answer to the problems he saw in the contemporary city: dirt, smog, unemployment and crime.

Instead, the inhabitants of EPCOT’s ‘Progress City’ would be squeaky-clean Disney employees, a ready-made community exploring a speculative future of free enterprise and technological utopianism. Its radial plan, divided into zones and surrounded by green belt, may have been modelled on Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept, but the fascination for gadgetry, monorails and consumerism was pure 1960s America.

In the end Walt died (in 1966) before it even got started and the company developed his idea into one part of its vast 30,000 acre theme park site outside Orlando. No one lives in either EPCOT or Disneyworld. They offer instead a fantasy version of real life, a holiday in a carefully curated alternative universe.

In this sense, Disney shares something with the otherwise vastly different Portmeirion in north Wales. Portmeirion is a holiday camp masquerading as a Welsh village masquerading as an Italian hill town. It was designed and conceived by eccentric aristocrat Clough Williams Ellis in the 1920s. Trained briefly at the Architecture Association, Williams Ellis set up his own practice in 1903, specialising in a polite form of neo-Georgian. He was also the author of England’s Octopus, a diatribe against ribbon development and suburban ‘sprawl’ and helped instigate the National Parks. Interestingly, his own National Park of Snowdonia carefully excluded the area where Portmeirion was built. 

No one actually lives in Portmeirion except guests who stay in chalets disguised as houses in a variety of styles: neo-Palladian, Kentish vernacular and Italian baroque among them. There is a square, a parade of shops and a village green. There is something that looks like a church which is actually a large fireplace designed by Norman Shaw stuck on the front of a miniature faux-chapel.

Williams Ellis was an artful salvager, picking up bits of historic architecture from demolition sites and recombining them into strange new formations. For this reason, nothing in Portmeirion is quite the right scale. He was fond of trompe-l'œil paint effects too, using them to give the illusion of additional windows or attic storeys. As a consequence the whole place has a disorientatingly Lilliputian quality.

What Williams Ellis achieved at Portmerion was one of the first purpose built holiday villages; a place to stay that was also the principal attraction. It wasn’t the first though: that was Thorpeness on the Suffolk coast. Like Portmerion, Thorpeness is a fantasy village, dreamt up in 1910 by Stuart Ogilvie who transformed an existing fishing community into an upper class theme park based on Edwardian children’s stories. At the centre of Thorpeness is The Mere, a shallow boating lake that is shaped and landscaped to evoke scenes from Peter Pan, Treasure Island and The Water Babies. Creeks, boat landings, miniature forts and pirate flags decorate this fusion of fictional and real spaces.

The rest of the village is made up of weather-boarded ‘fishermen’s huts’, cutely ersatz Tudor cottages and a few genuinely odd architectural set pieces. The first is the Dutch House; which has the profile of a Dutch barn but with Art Nouveau inflected detailing. More bizarre is the House in the Clouds, a water tower whose elevated tank is disguised as a cottage floating serenely above the trees.

Whether theme parks qualify as utopias is ultimately less important than the degree to which they promote an idealised version of normal life, or at least a fantasy version. The recent US TV series Westworld explored this fantasy and its ability to turn into its dystopian opposite. Westworld is a remake of a 1970s sci-fi thriller based on a Michael Crichton novel, one of a number of films of that period that explored the dark side of technological utopianism.

Westworld is a sophisticated theme park where visitors get to choose from four alternate universes – the Wild West, ancient Rome and medieval Europe. Total immersion and verisimilitude is the promise: in Westworld you can shoot your (fantasy) enemies if they annoy you, smash bottles over people’s heads in bars for fun and sit around campfires eating beans to your hearts content. Except of course when things go wrong. Westworld imagines a scenario where the facade cracks, where there is a glitch in the machine and where our fantasies curdle and turn sour.

Architecture plays a significant part in these fantasies and acts as its own glitch. And this is perhaps the difference between Westworld and Portmierion. For all its kitsch fantasy, Portmeirion never seriously expects us to believe that we are anywhere other than where we are. The Welsh climate takes care of that, but more importantly the architecture is deliberately fake: its insincerity is part of the pleasure. That it became the set for its dystopian fantasy – the late 1960s conspiracy thriller The Prisoner – is revealing in itself. The image of perfection intended by these places cannot last and is ultimately disconcerting. The interest remains in the suspension of disbelief required to live there, however briefly.