From Coventry to Sussex: Spence exhibition celebrates university’s architectural heritage 50 years on

Basil Spence exhibition 2012 - model of original campus

What does an architect do after rebuilding a great English cathedral?

In the case of Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976), one of the most eminent Modern architects of the postwar period, it was to design the first of a new wave of universities – the University of Sussex.

This year, the University celebrates its 50th anniversary alongside Spence’s Coventry Cathedral.

To mark Spence’s enduring contribution to Sussex, art historian Professor Maurice Howard has brought together for the first time the University’s own collection of original drawings (some by Spence), models, photographs and artifacts relating to dining and ceremonial at the University to evoke a sense of the early years of Sussex.

The exhibition space, a room in Arts A that overlooks the main square and core campus buildings, takes advantage of a view of campus from the window which brings the final results of the first phase of building into sharp focus.

The exhibition, which opens on May 10 and runs until 14 June, explores the phases of development, public and press reaction to the scheme, the early use of the buildings and the landscaping of the environs, as well as the buildings’ place in Spence’s distinguished career.

Original research by Professor Howard and by the country’s leading Spence scholar, Louise Campbell of the University of Warwick, brings out the significance of the buildings, while Spence himself will be seen giving his views in archive film as part of the visitor experience.  Professor Howard was assisted by art history graduates Sally Johnson and Mike Davy.

Professor Howard says: “I have been involved in many exhibitions for national museums and learned societies, but the chance to work on this show about the historic legacy of buildings at my own university has been an extraordinary experience.

“Working with a team of professional designers has meant that the exhibition looks very beautiful, the objects present a strong sense of artistic merit and yet it is clear they served as the practical means of planning the university’s listed buildings.

“To bring all this together has meant consultation with the country’s leading scholars of Basil Spence, his family and business associates, but also people who knew the university in its early days. I hope that the exhibition will elicit more memories and information since I see this very much as the starting-point of the next stage of valuing the university’s buildings and planning their future.”

The exhibition is partnered by a lecture given by Sussex alumna Dr Campbell and introduced by the architect (son-in-law and practice partner of Sir Basil Spence) Anthony Blee, on Spence, Sussex and the Sixties, on 23 May.

Spence’s modernist vision for a university fit for a brave new world required a bold, innovative concept, but the architect was also sensitive to the beauty of the downland setting and the value of local, traditional building materials.

Spence said at the time: “Bricks and mortar can provide a background that is sympathetic to young and energetic minds which are growing and developing apace.”  

The resulting buildings, including Falmer House, the Library, the Arts buildings, the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts), Chichester I and Pevensey I remain at the heart of campus today and became the first 1960s buildings in the country to be listed (Falmer House, in fact, shares Grade I listed status with Coventry Cathedral). Spence’s practice designed 17 buildings in all for the University.

This exhibition is free and open to all daily, 10.30am – 5.30pm (Closed on Sundays and Bank Holidays) in Room 108, Arts A, on the University of Sussex campus. Look for building number 22 (Arts A) on the campus map.

Louise Campbell Lecture: Chichester Lecture Theatre, University of Sussex campus, 23 May at 6.30pm.


Notes for Editors

Professor Maurice Howard is principally an architectural historian of Early Modern Europe whose researches have encompassed the arts of painting and the applied arts. He was Honorary Research Fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London from 2002 to 2007, when he was elected Director of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Visitors to the exhibition will have a chance to meet the curator on a number of dates, when Professor Howard will be on hand to talk about the creation of the exhibition and the individual exhibits. Dates and timesas follows:

Monday 14th May 1pm-1.45pm

Tuesday 29th May 1pm-1.45pm

Thursday 7th June 1pm-1.45pm and 4pm-4.45pm

For more information on the life and work of Sir Basil Spence, visit the Sir Basil Spence Archive Project web site.

Dr Campbell’s co-edited book on Basil Spence - Basil Spence: Buildings and Projects,
eds Louise Campbell, Miles Glendinning and Jane Thomas (RIBA Publishing),  is reviewed online in the architectural publication RIBA Journal

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Tuesday, 8 May 2012