Architecture: The nicest flats you will never see: Hidden away in London, Castle Lane gives Jonathan Glancey a glimpse of what public-sector housing could be like if the Government gave architects the chance

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Buildings for people with physical disabilities and psychiatric problems are more often than not insipid and patronising. Think of all those ever-so-'umble, bungaloid local authority 'care centres' built over the past 20 years, with their tweedy brickwork, earnestly tiled roofs, breeze-block corridors, grey carpets and token rubber plants.

Those with sound bodies and minds can afford to spurn such mind-numbing and mean-minded design. Others, less fortunate, have to live with it. Only if they are very lucky do they find themselves sheltered in a flat in a development of the calibre of Castle Lane.

Last week, Castle Lane - a cluster of 20 homes in Victoria, central London, designed by CGHP Architects for Lookahead Housing Association - won a national housing award from the Department of the Environment and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Before you say, so what? - architects and their chums handing out awards to one another once again - consider the importance of such an event to Britain's hard- pressed housing associations. A severe lack of funds means these last crusaders for homes-for-rent and specialist public-sector housing have been all but forced to marginalise the architect's role when commissioning new schemes.

They now employ government- approved 'design and build' methods of construction, which mean that architects are employed to design houses but not to build them. In the case of Castle Lane, this approach would have undermined the extraordinary quality of the scheme and made it a much less easy place to admire - and, if you live there - cherish. The whole point of employing architects in Britain is to have them follow through their designs until buildings are ready to hand over to the client. 'We want to build homes properly,' says Jim Monahan, of CGHP Architects, 'not the units we are asked to design.'

Sadly, you will not be able to judge the quality of Castle Lane for yourselves because the development is and must remain one of the capital's best-kept architectural secrets. Why? Because this serpentine wave of colourful flats is kept hidden behind locked gates, built in one of those empty spaces you can see only from the lavatory-tile backs of old office blocks.

If, however, the Castle Lane flats had fronted Castle Lane itself, they would never have been given planning permission. Looking like a Hector Guimard design that got away (Guimard was the Art Nouveau architect best known for his vegetable-like entrances to the Paris Metro), the flats appear at first sight to be little more than an architectural conceit.

Piers Gough may get away with a madcap and rather wonderful public lavatory in fashionable Notting Hill and a punky house for Janet Street-Porter in Smithfield, but what on earth were Peter Ranson, David Tompkinson and Jim Monahan (the designers of these secret homes) thinking of when they let their HB pencils fly in such apparently wilful fashion?

What they were thinking of was the creation of homes to delight the 20 people scheduled to live here. 'We did have a battle with the planners, but only to begin with,' says Jim Monahan. 'They thought that people working in surrounding office blocks wouldn't like to look down over a new housing development of this type. But what they look down on is a rather unusual roof garden and our Guimard-inspired glasswork.

'Many people have asked how we managed to detail the houses in such an apparently rich way. We gave ourselves a big advantage by recommending and working with this nominally awkward site: a part of the grounds of the Victorian flats that front Castle Lane, it cost Lookahead nothing.

'Even then the ironwork - made up very skilfully from just four standard parts by Nunlow's of Sheffield - and the glazing that it supports cost just pounds 100,000; we had to spend more than that on the alarm system that enables tenants to call for help. Much of the money went into what you don't see: the interiors of the flats.'

The interiors are well organised and detailed to a degree that comes as a surprise for those used to run- of-the-mill housing schemes of this type and budget. Instead of flush doors and kitchen units culled from manufacturers' catalogues, the Castle Lane flats boast panelled doors and cupboards and custom- designed kitchens as good as you will find in most developer-built flats in the private sector. Here, entire high-quality kitchen units can be raised or lowered to suit the requirements of individual residents. The bathrooms, too, are fitted out to an unexpectedly high standard.

But the glory of the flats are the balconies and roof garden (offering unusual views of the Soviet-style towers of Victoria's Stag Place and Byzantine snatches of the campanile of Westminster Cathedral). These, and the sheer quality of the flats in terms of planning and construction, are what makes them stand out from their peers. Their flamboyance conceals a solid core.

In some ways it is a shame that such an architectural treat should be locked behind gates. But what is deeply shameful is the fact that such developments are unlikely to reach such high standards again. 'It's ironic,' says Jim Monahan, 'that Sir George Young, the Department of the Environment's Minister for Housing, who presented us with the award, should be so enthusiastic about Castle Lane. He says it's just the type of housing we need for those with disabilities. At the same time, it's his government and his legislation that are making sure that we won't be able to design to this kind of standard in the future. We're very sad about this, but equally proud to win the award.'

Those who live here think the flats at Castle Lane are great; so does Robert Nightingale, of Lookahead, who runs them. So, too, does Sir George Young. Now what about some sane, enabling legislation to ensure that, though hidden from view, Castle Lane is not relegated to being a one-off curio in the architectural guides of the future?

(Photograph omitted)