Were you to wake up and find yourself in the Lacuna housing project, you could be forgiven for thinking yourself a denizen of the absurdist Sixties spy drama The Prisoner. But this is not Portmeirion. There are no film crews or tracking shots over the cobbles, and no huge white ectoplasmic balls chasing a lone escapee. You are not a prisoner here;nor will a hard-eyed Patrick McGoohan answer the doorbell, wearing a blazer and flannels. But isn't that a whiff of sea air? No, can't be. This is West Malling in Kent, miles from both the Thames Estuary and the English Channel.
But we are in a village of sorts, and it may be unique. The Lacuna, part of the vast Kings Hill housing development overlooking West Malling, is a land-use experiment whose key ingredient is high- density housing that has been worked into something approaching interesting domestic architecture. The mixture of flats and houses gives a ratio of 62 homes per hectare - quite something for a housing project whose "offer" ranges from two- bedroomed flats at pounds 200,000, to slim, four-storey townhouses weighing in at more than pounds 500,000.
The Lacuna is an instant hamlet, an echo of The Truman Show township beamed down on to the remains of a Battle of Britain airfield in hop and fruit country. Prince Charles would almost certainly approve of the Lacuna, though its architecture bears no aesthetic comparison to his richly fashioned Poundbury development, still growing on the edge of Dorchester.
Kings Hill is ordered and essentially middle class; ruminant 4WDs gruntle along the herringbone brick surfaces of Discovery Drive, Milton Lane and Fortune Way. As for the Lacuna's architecture, it seems to have its own micro-local vernacular, though its details are hard to place. The layout of the streets and alleys seems - one struggles not to use the phrase, and then gives up with a sigh - rather quaint.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) housing assessment panel loves the Lacuna, and will almost certainly gong it with a housing-design award. "The style of the development has been variously described as New England or Kentish Vernacular," they note. "But in reality it is sui generis, springing directly from the entirely convincing concept of the scheme as a whole - a highly welcome demonstration that breaking conventions can reap rich rewards for housebuilders." Riba's critics also refer to the project, designed by Clague, as "remarkably different".
It is, and it isn't. Nevertheless, this kind of housing development is notable in both architectural and land-use terms. It's an example of the road less taken; an extra effort made; a risk shouldered by those who know that, normally, the only way to secure a safe profit is to design and build with endlessly repeatable mediocrity in mind.
Versions of it are not yet to be found in the Thames Gateway, Ashford, Milton Keynes and the south Midlands, or the M11 corridor between Stansted and Cambridge. These are the zones whose new Urban Development Corporations were fuelled last week with an extra pounds 1.3bn a year from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to generate new infrastructure and 200,000 more homes. Is high-density housing of the Lacuna type one of the answers to Britain's housing shortage?
The short answer is obviously yes. But one wonders how many developers, locked into long-term building materials and design deals, would have the desire to try something different? High- density housing at the Lacuna is an acceptable enough idea; so, too, is much of its architecture. But the nuts and bolts of the housing - its detailing, configuration and technicalities - is quite another matter.
By normal British standards, these buildings might seem to be queer fish. Not because they're timber framed - that method, after two decades of gutless havering and at least one outbreak of internecine building-industry skulduggery, is no longer remarkable in this country. The Lacuna is unusual because the forms of its buildings are a fusion of Canadian timber technology and British design. British timber-frame suppliers, regardless of their proven skills, were unable to produce these unusual small-run configurations.
The Canadian Super E specification delivers unusually high heat- retention levels which, in turn, allowed the architects to use bigger areas of glazing. Architecturally, this is a godsend: it means designers can break up facades more interestingly, and get much more light into the housing. The timber- framing system could also handle oddities, such as V-shaped indents, running vertically up the facades. The interiors are surprising, too. The room layouts, and internal double-height balconies and cut-outs have produced some interesting spaces.
The homes in the Lacuna stand out compared to most of the many hundreds more ranged around them in Kings Hill - but not just because of their design permutations. The way its density has been treated is a key issue. The layout of the Lacuna was decided only after three months of fidgeting with the building positions, one at a time, which involved the project's joint-venture developers, Sunley Estates and Environ Country Homes. When housing units are this close together, the challenge is to give them light without letting the neighbours look in - and to dispel claustrophobia. The highly irregular site plan, with its mixture of straight and curved avenues and alleys, seems to achieve this.
The architectural result is not so much neo-Kentish vernacular as a cross between the alley-riddled core of St Ives, and Celebration, the Florida development whose precise, folksy neo-vernacular perfection pre-dated the hermetic weirdness of the town in a media bubble that was the real star of The Truman Show.
The Lacuna is remarkable, but hardly perfect. On a tour of two- thirds of the site, it was obvious that some of the external details had proved - to put it politely - challenging to the builders; the use of painted panels to give stucco effects on some elevations did not always look comfortable, though the idea was sound; the sundecks are well done, but why did the developers insist on sticking tiny balconies on to bedrooms at third-floor level? Is Kings Hill really full of vacuously smiling Truman clones who walk out on to these essentially useless shelves every morning to gaze at mirror images of themselves standing on identical ledges 20 feet away?
The architects suggest that the Lacuna is rather New England. Perhaps it is - but only if they mean our own England, in an age of urban evolution where the population concentrations that we think of as "towns" and "cities" and "villages" are rapidly being morphed into diffuse or discrete subtopics. Kings Hill is only a mile or two away from the crooked old High Street of West Malling, whose shopkeepers are doubtless grateful for its spending power. But Kings Hill is not an adjunct of West Malling. It has come from nowhere, with a view to becoming somewhere.
In this respect, the Lacuna and Kings Hill are no different from the impending urban developments in the Government's big-spending target areas. It's an example of the same Big Bang place-making that will fulminate in the Thames Gateway and elsewhere. And the words of Nigel Kersey, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, hover uncomfortably. "We are going to end up with the mistakes of the past," he says, "a massive urban nightmare" triggered by a lack of social infrastructure. John Prescott talks instead of homes being built "where people want to live - safer, cleaner and greener".
But people rarely get a chance to choose precisely where they want to live. They make do, whatever Mr Prescott says, with what's available. Those who are beginning to live among the curious twists and cuts of the Lacuna know this; they know the M20 is near, along with the Ashford to London rail link, ready to whisk them away to their jobs in places that certainly don't resemble St Ives. They are, in effect, the pioneer settlers of a new town - a lacuna, indeed, a gap in the urban housing market that is beginning to be filled.
They may also think they're lucky to have pitched up in houses and flats that are decidedly hugger-mugger, yet somehow individualistic - a place where the ghost of The Prisoner does not lurk, after all. In this village, No6 has ditched the blazer, has very precisely tousled hair - and has no fear of being engulfed by a gloopy white ball.…