Sylvia Crowe: unearthing the woman who landscaped our learning

Dr Sarah Watson: Academic Developer

Most people at the University of Sussex haven’t heard of Sylvia Crowe. Her legacy at the University is strong, but generally silent, existing in the spine of trees that cut across the centre of campus, the cloisters, courtyards, and pathways that give context to our teaching spaces. Crowe, the University’s landscape architect, still choreographs us through our campus, yet most of us are completely unaware of her. 

At Sussex we like to talk about the beginnings of the University. When we do, we never fail to speak of the campus’ ‘renowned’ architect, Basil Spence. It was Spence who commissioned Crowe as landscape architect, seeking her advice on how to make the University buildings (to use Spence’s words) ‘grow out of the soil of Sussex’ (1964, 204). Spence sought the expertise of Crowe, whose work changed the face of twentieth-century Britain as she acted as landscape consultant on the construction of towns, motorways, power stations, and was central to the preservation of, and public access to, the countries’ forests. Despite these accomplishments, little has been written about her, and she remains absent from most publications about the creation of Sussex. Where she is included, it is only in passing.  

In 1998 Mathew Parris wrote in The Spectator that it’s wonderful to have created something enduringly famous while remaining anonymous. Parris included Crowe in his list of unknown artists, and claimed that creators like her were happy with their anonymity. That somehow their invisibility brought them closer to God. I find it hard to share Parris’ view. Not that I’m claiming to know whether Crowe cared that her contributions to the University went relatively unrecognised. It just seems presumptive to associate anonymity with power, particularly when we think about the women who have been, and those who remain, silenced in a world that often still prioritises giving the platform to men.  

In celebration of International Women’s Day, this blog post starts to unearth the impact of Crowe at Sussex. This task is made difficult because Crowe is missing from almost every publication about the University. I’ve had to look for her elsewhere, in her own writings on the landscapes of agriculture, motorways, and power stations. In these texts, and in the few texts written about her, Crowe comes across as commanding and loud, famous in her circles for fierce eye-contact and persuasive communication (British Forestry, 1998 and Collens and Powell, 1999). With this in mind, it seems strange that she has such a small presence at Sussex, prompting me to consider the legacy of her silence. Crowe is missing from the 1964 seminal publication on the founding of Sussex: David Daiches’ The Idea of a New University. This book is a key reference point upon which future discussions about the institution have developed. Because Crowe wasn’t included in conversations from the beginning, it has become very easy to neglect her as time has moved on.  

Crowe’s legacy at Sussex, and in her landscape designs in general, can be defined as sympathetic. In 1955 she wrote that ‘every landscape has its own character which reacts differently to the incursion of crowds and buildings.’ The architect must ‘design in sympathy with each particular landscape (Crowe, 1955, 250). Almost ten years later, in The Idea of a New University, Spence echoes Crowe in his chapter on the building of the Sussex campus. He writes: ‘Because of the lovely site I was against building high; the trees should top the buildings and continue to form the skyline. The materials should be sympathetic to the location – a Sussex brick, concrete, knapped flint, copper, timber and white paint’ (Spence, 1964, 205). Although Crowe’s influence underlies Spence’s chapter, he doesn’t mention her once. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this oversight, or perhaps this oversight is itself easily overlooked when our histories are crowded by men. If it doesn’t seem strange that Crowe’s influence isn’t credited, then why isn’t it strange that Spence credits far more distant influences, like Robert Adam, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and even Archimedes. The credit to Archimedes compounds the issue of Crowe’s omission. In 1961, the year the University of Sussex opened, Crowe gave a lecture called Civilisation and Landscape, which praises the geometry of Greek architecture. She describes how the Parthenon is ‘imperceptibly curved to acknowledge the land formation of its hill’ and reflects on how ‘the Greeks knew that geometry and natural form were two facets of a single truth’ (95). Once again, in echo of Crowe, Spence’s 1964 chapter heralds the architectural harmony of Athenian colonnades, describing their influence over the University’s physics building.  

The main aim of this blog isn’t to criticise Spence for his omission of Crowe, but rather to begin revealing more female aspects of our University heritage, which can be so easily buried beneath the weight of men. It was almost a hundred years ago that Virgina Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, lamented the very heavy, and very male, foundations laid at Oxbridge. It was funding from men that laid the first stone and established the first scholarship. And, as a result of this patronage, Woolf describes how women at Oxbridge, even in 1928, weren’t allowed to walk on the grass. That privilege was still reserved for the male fellows and scholars, who were set to protect ‘their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession’ (Woolf, 2000, 8). With the building of the 1960s plate glass universities, like Sussex, came new ways of doing things. The turf at our campus wasn’t rolled out by a man, but by a woman, and Crowe’s landscape should, at the very least, be acknowledged, if not celebrated.  

As we start to unearth Crowe, we begin to see that there’s more to the Sussex than first meets the eye and that our landscape is a complex organism, ‘of which man is only a part’ (Crowe, 1961, 95). I suggest we do more digging. Who knows who we might uncover? 


British Forestry. “A Tribute to Dame Sylvia Crowe’s Landscape Work for British Forestry.” Forestry 71, no. 1 (1998): 83–85.

Crowe, Sylvia. “Civilisation and Landscape.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 110, no. 5066 (1961): 93–102.  

Geoffrey, Collens, and Wendy Powell. Sylvia Crowe. Reigate, Surrey: LDT Monographs, 1999. 

Parris, Matthew. “Why the Fame of Anonymity is the Greatest Fame of all.” The Spectator, Jan 03, 1998, 8,  

Spence, Basil. “Building a New University.” Essay. In The Idea of a New University, David Daiches, 201–16. London: Andre Deutsch, 1964. 

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 2000. 

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