ArchReview – University of Sussex, Brighton

Falmer House, home of the Students’ Union

Four miles outside of Brighton and nestled in between a National Park, the campus of University of Sussex designed by Sir Basil Spence is a behemoth of higher education with an unwavering and easily identifiable style.

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The University of Sussex was the first of a new wave of ‘plate glass’ universities set up to cater for the growing numbers of students in the UK during the post-war era. The original campus was designed by architect Sir Basil Spence, famous for his post-war Coventry Cathedral and the ‘Beehive’ New Zealand Parliament building in Wellington.

Spence’s distinctive combination of red brick and raw concrete creates a jagged blend of aesthetics. Many of the buildings on campus feature those clichés of higher education, such as long pillared walkways and formal quads, however at Sussex, Sir Basil Spence has added modern touches. This is most noticeable in the home of the Student’s Union, Falmer House. Whereas in an traditional setting, the central section of a quad may be covered in well-manicured grass usual off limits to pedestrians with a free-flowing path surrounding it, at Sussex, Spence has paved the entire central area liberating user with the space but imprisoning them by a moat inside the quad. By inverting this relationship between pedestrian and quad, Spence sends out a clear message of the revolutionising higher education that the ‘plate glass’ universities were to symbolise and appears almost as a premonition of the reputation that the University of Sussex would earn during the second half of the twentieth century.

The concrete arches which support Falmer House are a style recreated across the campus, most emphatically at the library where a large row of Spence’s characteristic arches sit on the very top and at night when light shines out from the inside, give the illusion of the profile of the leaves of an open book. The distinctive concrete arches are a style Spence used on other projects, noticeably Hyde Park Barracks. Indeed the University of Sussex hosts many features which can be seen in Spence’s later projects. The ‘Meeting House’ sitting in the centre of campus is a cylindrical concrete structure filled with multi-coloured glazed windows with a copper roof. One of its greatest views is from the inside where dappled light pours in in a multitude of colours, this building is magnificent and can be seen as a pre-runner to his work on the ‘beehive’ New Zealand Parliament in Wellington.

Cylindrical 'Meeting House' at the heart of the University of Sussex campus

Cylindrical “Meeting House” at the heart of the campus

Although his work is usually characterised as Brutalist, there is a level of intricacy in his work at Sussex which provide it with a level of warmth usually unfound in Brutalism. This is partly due to his use of red brick which provides a glaze over sharp edges of his work. However, the warmth of campus shines through the windows of the ‘Meeting House’ and the level of detail he employs in highlighting its role as a Higher Education establishment.

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