DORCHESTER, England - If Poundbury, the utopian suburb Prince Charles founded 20 years ago as a rejoinder to Britain's architectural modernists, had an opera house, it would probably look something like Philadelphia's Academy of Music.

While there's nothing quite that grand in Poundbury - yet - Charles has been painstakingly fashioning the village on the outskirts of Dorchester into a living demonstration of his own architectural philosophy.

Here, the perfectly paved streets ramble as if they were following medieval footpaths. The narrow, curving lanes are packed with a mix of exactingly built Georgian, Victorian and Craftsman houses. The overtly modern rarely intrudes on this historically accurate idyll. The village's strict design guidelines forbid contemporary incursions like satellite dishes, trash cans, gas vents and meter boxes. Even traffic signs are banned.

Some might dismiss the rapidly growing village as nothing more than a fussier variation on one of America's New Urbanist towns, like Florida's Celebration. But the description doesn't do justice to the radical nature of Charles' experiment. Though the prince, who arrives in Philadelphia tomorrow, is sometimes written off in Britain as a kook, Poundbury offers a window into Charles' true self:

He is at once a passionate urban reformer, a crusading environmentalist, and a conservative guardian of what he perceives to be England's essential Englishness. When he raises the issue of urban regeneration this weekend in Philadelphia, he is likely to hold Poundbury up as an appealing alternative for sprawl-dependent Americans.

But many architects in Britain, who now turn out international icons the way the nation once produced sensible wool sweaters, will cringe at the thought of Poundbury's representing the best of British design. They're much more proud of Norman Foster's recent "Gherkin" tower or the Tate Modern. The politest of Charles' critics describes Poundbury, or "Charleyville," as "a bit twee."

Stephen Bayley, who helped found London's design museum, once remarked that the village was emblematic of the "thwarted longings for rural cuteness that torment the uneducated English mind." In a screed published in 2003, he called it "artistically dead" and suggested that Charles' promotion of official English architectural styles bordered on Nazi-style nationalism.

When it comes to defending Poundbury, in his hereditary Duchy of Cornwall seven miles from the Dover cliffs, Charles gives as good as he gets.

"To create a place is to create something which tells us where we are - in particular, which country we are in," he said in a speech several years ago. More recently, the prince sniffed that British modernists were turning London "into an absurdist picnic table. We already have a giant Gherkin."

Charles' grudge match with the modernists goes back to 1984, when the prince told a group of architects that their profession had done more harm to London than the Luftwaffe. Soon afterward, he declared all-out war. After being shown plans for an addition to the National Gallery, he denounced the design as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend."

The comment caused the project's architect to lose the commission, and Philadelphia's Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown were hired instead. While American historians list the gallery addition among their best works, British critics like Deyan Sudjic dismiss it as camp. Some British architects have never forgiven the Philadelphians, noted Alex Lifschutz, who designed the acclaimed Hungerford Bridge over the Thames: "They never did another building in Britain."

But that episode planted the seeds for Poundbury in Charles' mind. He had already embraced organic farming at his Highgrove estate, near Dorchester, because he was concerned about the loss of traditional agriculture practices in an increasingly globalized world. Soon, he was talking in the same breath about the need to preserve traditional farming and traditional architecture. In 1987, he won permission to transform 400 acres into a village that would emphasize both British traditional buildings and environmentally friendly construction.

None of that long history matters much to Richard Boonton, who moved three years ago to a $700,000 Georgian-style townhouse on a leafy crescent straight out of London's Notting Hill.

"I was sick of all those modern annoyances in other places. I hated seeing trash piled on the sidewalk. Or waking up one morning to find that my view was going to be blocked by an ugly new building," Boonton explained. He chose Poundbury because he saw it as a guaranteed escape from "the vulgarity of modern life."

Yet Poundbury is not just an escapist enclave. While the typical New Urbanist development is a subdivision dressed in urban clothing, Poundbury is a real and viable town. The village, which now comprises 650 buildings and could grow to 2,200, is stitched tightly onto the Victorian fringes of Dorchester, which existed before the Romans arrived. "It's a logical extension of an existing place," said R. Simon Conibear, the duchy's representative in Poundbury.

Charles hired the celebrated New Urbanist theorist and provocateur Leon Krier to plan the villages and devise architectural standards. Krier put into practice many of the idealistic principles that New Urbanists preach but rarely get to practice. He decreed that Poundbury should be as dense as a small city, with 20 houses to the acre, so people could easily walk to shops and work. He made the sidewalks generous and the streets narrow and winding. That arrangement forces motorists to drive slowly and eliminates the need for those unsightly modern traffic signs Charles despises.

Though Krier, like Charles, is an aggressive champion of historical styles, Poundbury's buildings are no pastiches. Each house is constructed by hand from brick and stone or finished in a traditional British cement-and-sand mixture. The guidelines permit manmade materials such as drywall, but only inside the houses. The quality materials and skilled craftsmanship gives Poundbury houses a heft rarely found, even in a McMansion.

Of course, the fine work means that a Poundbury house costs about 10 percent more than a typical British home. That has not stopped them from selling swiftly, Conibear said. Britain suffers from a serious housing shortage.

Poundbury can also boast a high degree of economic diversity. Because the British are strict about providing affordable housing for low-wage-earners, one in three homes is set aside for teachers, police and the unemployed. In many ways, it feels like a comfy middle-brow English town, the sort of place where people sit by the fire, watching the telly and drinking a strong cuppa.

Yet Poundbury can feel contrived. There are so many restrictions on modifying townhouses that it is hard to imagine the village ever achieving the architectural agglomerations that make places like London - or Philadelphia, for that matter - so visually thrilling.

Real cities evolve. Bad-taste changes are not the worst thing that can happen to them.

And while Charles and the ideological modernists were lobbing verbal grenades, many British architects were learning to walk a more nuanced line between preservation and modernity. Take Lifschutz's Hungerford Bridge. Built in 1860 as a railroad crossing, it had narrow sidewalks that were incapable of handling pedestrian traffic. Rather than demolish it, Lifschutz used a modern steel-cable system to suspend two generous walkways on either side.

The two hanging structures, which offer great views of the Victorian railway bridge, are now one of the most popular strolling boulevards in London.

Watch videos of Poundbury at http://go.philly.com/poundburyEndText

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.