Dunelm House: should it stay or should it go?

By Danny Walker

Dunelm House, the building housing Durham Students’ Union, has a poor reputation amongst students and locals alike. Its moribund, grey appearance is a typical example of the now frequently panned 1960s architectural style. Few people regard the DSU as the most significant of institutions. Yet now that Dunelm House faces demolition, public support seems to have amassed behind it. A 38 Degrees petition opposing Durham University’s decision to destroy the 51-year-old building has attracted 2,647 signatures at time of writing. Obviously, it is difficult to establish the authenticity of and motivation behind signatures. Yet the proposed changes and public reaction, even if small-scale, call for a reassessment of the value of the DSU building to our University. There is no reason to ‘fix’ what is not broken. Dunelm House meets the requirements of a students’ union for Durham University, and a new construction to ‘raise Durham’s profile’ is unnecessary and expensive.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, positive arguments in favour of retaining Dunelm House. The structure is symbolic of 1960s architecture: engineered by Ove Arup, it was designed by the Architects’ Co-Partnership in 1966. Dunelm House is intertwined with the adjacent Kingsgate Bridge (itself Grade I-listed) and forms part of the iconic heritage of its era. Concomitantly, it pays tribute to our local area – Arup was himself a Geordie native – just as Durham Cathedral immortalises the Anglo-Saxon and Norman eras. Even if this comparison is a little exaggerated, I would argue that the trend of ‘erasing’ periods of history because they do not suit contemporary tastes, even in the field of architecture, sets a dangerous precedent. Perhaps we should refurbish, and then celebrate or critique ‘unpopular’ 20th-century architecture, as has occurred in other successful, award-winning developments such as Park Hill in Sheffield. This argument may appear conservative but it is essential that history is recognised; that includes recognising historical ‘mistakes’, in order to avoid emulating them. 1960s architecture may well be a prime example of the above. The maxim ‘if something’s not broken, don’t fix it’ certainly holds true in this situation. Too often, as a society and as individuals, we strive for the latest product or innovation, which might well be an improvement, but it scarcely justifies the costs. Durham University’s latest Estates Masterplan argues that Dunelm House cannot “accommodate new uses.”

The University should certainly seek to anticipate future problems and create strategies to remedy them. Consequently, one might argue that a larger Students’ Union is necessary to accommodate for planned increases to the student population. Nevertheless, surely practical modifications to the existing structure would be a less disruptive solution than full-scale demolition and reconstruction? Perhaps the DSU’s functions could be distributed across Durham; this separation would certainly increase its accessibility for students. Above all, with our financial futures already threatened by rising tuition fees, as the student body we should look to curtail unnecessary spending by the University wherever it occurs. The University cannot justify this year’s tuition fee rise to £9,250 if it continually invests in new academic and sports buildings, such as the £11.5m Ogden Center and Maiden Castle redevelopments. Why replace facilities which already have a profound international reputation? Rather than expensively pursuing perfection, we should accept and make the most of our current set-up, focusing on raising engagement with the DSU.

Before I conclude, it is necessary to consider the finer details of the demolition process. The University has at least considered the possibility of building modifications, but argues that these measures would cost £14.7 million and are themselves too expensive. Yet surely the financial costs of demolition, complicated by topographical and accessibility considerations as well as landfill disposal, would be greater? We must also consider the negative social consequence of a dislocated or absent DSU, and the unsustainability of simply ‘dumping’ demolished waste in a landfill site. Refurbishment works, such as those on the leaking roof, an inevitable consequence of age, could be gradually costed to reduce their impact on financial solvency. Dunelm House has intrinsic architectural value, but if one takes the view that Durham Students’ Union is extrinsically insignificant (college JCRs perform many of the welfare and social functions which SUs conduct at non-collegiate universities) then it is hard to justify any expenses incurred by improving DSU facilities, whether by amendment or demolition.

There are cases for and against making improvements, but rather than viewing the building as a problem requiring a grand solution, the University should perceive the structure as an end in itself, so that we can continue to feel stoically proud.

Photograph: Rob Hardyman

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