Brutal, but effective?

By Madeleine Cater

As a newcomer to the editing world of Palatinate the arrival of our 800th edition came as a chance to stop and look backwards, rather than rushing forwards to the next publication deadline! To be at the current end of this longstanding Durham tradition made me curious as to what exactly had come before.

While many of the newspaper’s articles are now online, Palatinate has been in physical print for much longer than this (since its first issue in 1948) and we have a copy of almost every single paper since then.

A delve into Palatinate’s rickety (and rather sketchily organised) archives reveals a plethora of scandals, sports reports and opinion pieces. One particular theme, however, recurred again and again: the DSU’s Dunelm House.

This struck me as being especially poignant considering the Student Union’s recent decision to support the University’s plans to demolish the building. The artistic landscape of Durham changed dramatically when the Brutalist building was erected, and it will change again once its demolition date is decided.

The artistic landscape of Durham changed dramatically

Tracking back to the 204th edition in 1966, the headline of a double page spread declares: ‘DUNELM HAS FINALLY COME TO LIFE!’ The excitement within these articles suggests the hype surrounding the launch of this purpose-built, incredibly modern building.

And it really was modern for its time. Brutalism as an architectural style was at the height of fashion when Dunelm House was opened in 1966. In addition, its supervising architect, Sir Ove Arup, had recently become acclaimed for his design of the Kingsgate Bridge (situated beside the DSU) and so there must have been a type of glamour associated with the building at its completion.

Architecturally, yes, one may argue that Dunelm House is ugly, especially to a modern eye. The vast expanse of exposed concrete and the ‘broken’ facades of the building are a world away from the 11th century brickwork of Durham Castle. Yet, culturally, this building quickly became of significant importance, especially after its Civic Trust award in 1968, and has been an integral part of Durham University life ever since.

What stuck out in the articles during the opening of the building was how useful it was going to be to its students. The foremost purpose of Brutalist buildings is to prioritise function over anything else. The facilities themselves were termed in Palatinate as ‘a vast improvement on anything Durham students have ever had before.’

One question still remains with the destruction of Dunelm House: what will take its place?

These facilities also included bars and cafes which one enthusiastic student declared were ‘better for social mixing than North Road!’ And now, the DSU seems to be returning to this centre of sociability. With the closure of Loveshack over the summer and the move of Shack Up to Dunelm House many prefer this club night over others available on the North Road.

It is ironic on two levels, then, that Dunelm House will be demolished. First, just as the DSU is beginning to be used again as a place of nightlife and socialising. And secondly, that the brand-new facilities which caused so much anticipation have, 50 years later, been deemed no longer adequate.

One question still remains with the destruction of Dunelm House: what will take its place? A vast, modern building?  Perhaps made with glass rather than concrete? And which focuses on facilities and function? Sounds similar to the aspirations of the initial project in the ‘60s! I wonder whether history will repeat itself and how many times over the next 800 issues the contentious subject of Durham’s Student Union building will be discussed.

Illustration: Faye Chua

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