University of Sussex

The University of Sussex was the first of a wave of seven new universities that were founded during the 1960s around the country. The idea of such an institution was first raised in 1911 in a meeting in the Royal Pavilion by a local architect but plans weren’t revived until 1956. The University received its Royal Charter in August 1961 and opened in temporary accommodation near Preston Park with just 52 students. Today, it is a self-contained village with nearly 12,000 students.

The idyllic setting of Stanmer Park, bought by the council in 1947, provided an abundance of land. The first building that one comes across upon entering the campus, by car or by train, is Falmer House. It is essentially a series of rooms above massive concrete and red brick arches around a moated courtyard. It was completed in 1962 as part of the first phase of a grand plan by Scottish architect, Basil Spence (later Sir Basil) and won one of the coveted medals of the Royal Institute of British Architects. It is also one of just several Grade I Listed buildings in the city.

Much of the rest of the campus is Grade II* Listed including the circular non-denominational Meeting House of 1966 which has walls built from honeycombed blockwork with coloured glass in the voids in-between. The Gardner Arts Centre was built in 1969 as a flexible theatre and is made up of various circular and segmented sections – like a small brick Guggenheim Museum. The University won a Civic Trust Award that same year.

There was originally no student accommodation and it was assumed that the various hotels and bedsits around town would be enough. They weren’t and today there are many residential developments in varying styles that have sprung up on campus. A much-needed new medical centre has been built on the main thoroughfare which simply doesn’t fit in with the rest of the buildings. This is a shame as, although quite individual, Spence’s original designs would certainly not have been difficult to match.

Situated by the Sussex Downs, Sussex is the only university in England which is based entirely within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Chancellor is of course Sir Richard Attenborough, whose Brighton connections go way back. I in fact studied engineering at Sussex but always regret not taking more of an interest in the fine architecture at the time.