Architecture suffers from the same myopic worldview as fashion.

Its practitioners are required to build to the tastes of their proprietors and public appreciation of beauty changes like the wind.

Whoever thought buildings made in the 1960s brutalism style would be loved?

Or listed by English Heritage?

Yet the National Theatre on London’s South Bank is revered. Coventry Cathedral was called every name under the sun before people decided to declare it beautiful.

And the University of Sussex, the commission Sir Basil Spence took on after he had been knighted for his work at Coventry?

The seven concrete beauties that make up the centrepiece of the Falmer campus were the first 1960s buildings English Heritage granted protected status.

They might have been welcomed with trepidation but, as the university celebrates its 50th anniversary year, appreciation for Spence’s work is growing.

University of Sussex art historian Professor Maurice Howard says the campus contains some of the most important 1960s buildings in the country.

“Basil Spence came to design the university immediately after working on the most modern building in its time, the most important commission, Coventy Cathedral.

“Sussex was the first university to get a charter among the seven newuniversities founded in the 1960s.

“We are talking about a time when the university sector was small: they were new, exciting places where new things would be discovered about how undergraduates could learn.

“What is interesting is the relation of the buildings to each other.

“They are in a town shape, around a great grassy plain, in the tradition of Ancient Greece.

“They respect the Downs.

None of them break the lines of the Downs. The landscaping is very important “It was a really significant moment.”

The professor has gathered together sketches, photos and models to explore the campus development, its landscaping and the press and public reaction to the building, for an exhibition as part of Brighton Festival.

He says the 80 or so pieces, dug out from university archives and borrowed from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (where Spence was born), reveal an academic as well as an architect.

“Spence’s drawing of the Meeting House is important. It shows him as an academic architect, who respects landscape and setting.

“The university decided not to have a Christian chapel. Instead, there is a great circular building, which still has its original furnishings, where all faiths can meet together to worship.”

Brutalism is a strand of the Modernist movement. The style is underpinned by a belief functional design should be progressive. Spence’s design for Sussex is filled with the ethos.

“He wanted to create not just reading spaces but also social spaces.

“The images show people sitting in a field discussing philosophy. They might seem dated but he also made sure there were low comfy chairs and bright modern colours in the buildings.

“Along with John Fulton, the first Vice Chancellor, he wanted to make a place that looked lively. He was keen that the university should create a new and innovative direction for education.”

Spence’s design was certainly ahead of its time. He chose to use local brick and traditional building materials in an innovative way.

He even took design advice from artist friends Graham Sutherland and John Piper.

Howard says this makes for sympathetic architecture rooted in the era’s burgeoning arts and crafts culture.

Spence’s design legacy might divide opinion, but he made a vital contribution to Sussex life.

“We were the first of the new universities with a great buzz,” explains Professor Howard.

“People who didn’t want to go to Oxbridge would come to London by the sea.

Arts A, Room 108, University of Sussex, Falmer Campus, Brighton, free, 10.30am to 5.30pm, call 01273 606755

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