Making the Future, Inspired by the Past


By Roger FitzGerald

ADP's expansion plans for the University of Sussex

"Making the Future" the title of the University’s Strategic Plan 2009-2015 was taken from the first Vice-Chancellor, John Fulton’s words, when he said that education was ‘making the future’. Our masterplan, to achieve that Plan, likewise takes inspiration from the past, to look to the future.

In the late 1950’s Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government made a decision to expand the education system to meet the growing demand for graduates in period of prosperity following the Second World War. The University of Sussex was the first of seven new ‘Plate-Glass’ Universities to be built on a parkland site.

Today the Sussex ranks in the top 20 of the university league table [1], and to maintain its position, the estate has had to evolve meet the University’s plans for growth.

Image: Aerial view of masterplan

By 2009, this was the third, and most ambitious, iteration of our evolving masterplans for the University, which sought to increase the capacity of the campus from 12,000 to 20,000 students. Work had begun in 2003, and our first task then was to undertake an appraisal of the site. 

Image: Sketch of Falmer House, Sir Basil Spence

The original campus established in 1961 at Falmer, to the north of Brighton, was masterplanned by one of the most eminent architects of the time, a president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Sir Basil Spence. Spence had earned acclaim through the design of Coventry Cathedral that had risen from the rubble of the Blitz. 

Of all the seven new ‘Plate Glass’ Universities of the 1960s, Sussex was the most successful architecturally. The term ‘Plate-Glass’ was coined by Michael Beloff QC, who came up with the label to reflect the architectural design of the new universities, where wide expanses of plate glass in steel or concrete frames were often used.[2] This modern aesthetic contrasted with the red brick Victorian Universities and ancient Medieval Colleges.

Image: Sketch of Arts Building, Sir Basil Spence

Sussex was particularly notable for the integration of built form with the surrounding downland landscape, now the South Downs National Park. The original tree lines were maintained, with mature trees running north-south through the centre of the campus. Spence carefully manipulated building forms and positions to create unfolding views, and “enticing glimpses” of the landscape beyond.

Spence planned for a campus of 3,000 students, acknowledging that it might expand to twice that size. He worked on the campus throughout the 1960s and ten of his buildings are now listed. Later buildings, constructed in the early 1970s, whilst not as impressive as Spence’s work, nonetheless adhered to his masterplan principles. 

Sadly, this was not true of the next generation. Spence had anticipated increasing use of the motorcar, and planned for vehicles to be kept to the site perimeter, but the scale of this was unexpected, and increasing areas of grassland were expeditiously turned over to tarmac. The rate of growth slowed down in the 1970s and in this period, and the following two decades, what development that did occur was ad hoc and unplanned.

This is what we encountered when we began work in 2003: an outstanding original core of Spence buildings, surrounded by sprawling car parking which pedestrians had to traverse to reach disjointed buildings around the perimeter. At this point a period of strategic thinking about the estate followed, re-establishing the connection between the broad objectives of the University to its physical environment, each supporting the other. With universities growing rapidly and competing with each other, Sussex needed to exploit one of its greatest assets, its beautiful natural setting.

Image: Original model of Falmer House, which is now Grade I listed

We began by undertaking a Conservation Plan, which identified that the listed buildings are of national, and in some cases, international significance. Importantly, it also recognised buildings which make a positive contribution - and those which do not. If the latter were also in poor condition or unsuitable for their purpose, they could be designated for demolition or radical overhaul. This analysis allowed us to develop proposals for the future, to maximise the capacity and potential of the whole campus.

We decided that Spence’s principles remained sound: that parking and servicing should be kept to the periphery; buildings should be used to define external spaces, large and small; pedestrian routes up and down, and across, the valley should be enhanced, with generous staircases built into the hillside; the palette of materials provides a sense of place; and that some buildings should be flexible, adaptable ‘background’ forms, whilst others such as lecture theatres should be more prominent focal points.

As well as influencing the overall campus masterplan, these concepts have found physical expression in a series of new buildings we have designed close to the historic Spence core.

Image: Swanborough House, Student Residential Accommodation

Swanborough is a series of three separate student accommodation blocks built alongside the north-south arterial road, Refectory Road, which will eventually become a pedestrianised boulevard. Two new courtyards provide the setting for 250 new study bedrooms.

Image: Fulton House

A third quadrangle has been created at the heart of the campus, alongside Spence’s Boiler House. Using its brick solidity as a foil, our new Fulton Building sits at right angles, with a shaded triple-height cloister providing solar shading to the seminar rooms within. Two lecture theatres create sculptural brick forms at the lower levels, a reference to Spence’s Chichester theatre.

Image: Jubilee Building

On the opposite, western, side of the campus the Jubilee Building replaced an inefficient, inflexible and energy-consuming 1970s tower. Jubilee has high ceilings, flexible floorplates and controlled natural light: vertical fins to shade the east and west elevations, and a series of huge angled roof planes ensuring comfort in a central atrium. In front of the rectilinear and adaptable main building, a new 500-seat lecture theatre is partly sunken into the landscape and is topped with a grass roof terrace. Its curvaceous form sits within a large external space, echoing Spence’s expression of the Meeting House as a circular shape within Fulton Court.

Our completed buildings cost in excess of £50 million, whilst the overall masterplan is valued at well over £500 million. Our new additions are influenced by Spence’s work, but also meet the needs of today, being far more flexible and sustainable. In devising a masterplan we have sought to control key aspects such as building positions and forms, whilst allowing variety of expression by other architects. Our role has varied, from developing conceptual designs to planning stage, such as East Slope; monitoring technical delivery of residences such as at Northfield; and integrating buildings into their surrounding context, as seen for Life Sciences.

Spence gave Sussex a memorable start to life, a vision and coherence. ADP has prepared a blueprint to guide future development to ensure that exciting new architecture complements the natural and the man-made natural landscape setting. This relationship between architecture and landscape makes the University of Sussex a special place for students to study and build their futures.

Click on the link top right to watch Roger FitzGerald talking about the masterplan, filming commissioned by the University of Sussex. 

[1] https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings
 [2] Beloff, Michael Jacob, The Plateglass Universities. Secker & Warburg. 31 December 1968


Roger FitzGerald

Roger FitzGerald

Roger joined ADP in 1983 and is the chairman of the practice. He has overall responsibility for design quality and he is closely involved in a range of projects across the