Students’ Union building receives Grade II protections after four-year campaign

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Dunelm House, the Students’ Union building, has gained listing protection after being reclassified as a Grade II building by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. This means the building cannot be demolished.

The decision came after The Twentieth Century Society, which runs campaigns to defend buildings with significant historical or architectural relevance from change or demolition, submitted a second appeal to the department on the basis that problems with maintaining the building’s concrete structure could be easily solved.

“We are delighted and look forward to working with the University to explore how it can be properly restored and continue to function—we think it is an enormous asset for the University.”

-catherine Croft, Director of the Twentieth Century Society

This was the Society’s second attempt to secure Dunelm House’s protected status, after a previous application in 2017 was unsuccessful. The successful application highlighted “irregularities in the listing decision process” that suggested the wrong decision had been reached originally.

Catherine Croft, the Director of The Twentieth Century Society told Palatinate: “We are delighted and look forward to working with the University to explore how it can be properly restored and continue to function—we think it is an enormous asset for the University.”

Construction on Dunelm House began in 1964, with Architect Richard Raines providing the designs. Following the University filing a Certificate of Immunity in 2016, which would have prevented them from having to preserve Dunelm House and allowed them to go ahead with plans to demolish the building, a local campaign was established to preserve it.

Professor Stuart Corbridge, the University Vice-Chancellor, told Palatinate: “Durham University is a responsible custodian of a large and historic estate. We manage over 300 buildings, 62 of which are listed, and we also jointly manage a World Heritage Site with Durham Cathedral. We take decisions on the future of our estate with great care and following wide consultation with interested stakeholders and the public.

“We will now carefully work through options for the building, while continuing to work in partnership with our students, staff and stakeholders.”

-Prof. Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University

“The Secretary of State’s decision to list Dunelm House as Grade II, which notes there are divided opinions on Brutalist buildings, has given us much to consider as we shape our future investment strategy. We will now carefully work through options for the building, while continuing to work in partnership with our students, staff and stakeholders.”

However, the University’s approach to Dunelm House was criticised by local campaigners. James Perry, a Newcastle-based architect and co-founder of architecture archive Something Concrete, noted that they had planned to demolish the building in 2016.

“Hopefully this is a sign that the University will change its tact on the way it handles its estates and its buildings. It has a record for wanting to demolish things around the city despite supporting the fight against the climate emergency”.

“I think it’s very postitive. This is an outstanding and exceptional building. It’s bespoke and fully deserves to be listed and used for the future.”

-James Perry, Co-founder of Something Concrete

Student opinion on the decision ranges broadly, with one student describing it as “a Marmite moment for the people of Durham”. Tim Sigsworth, a recent graduate, was disappointed with the announcement: “The hopes of many an architectural purist have been dashed by this incomprehensible decision.

“Durham’s beauty lies largely in its historic, pre-20th century architecture, and Dunelm House has always been an incongruous blight upon this. I for one am staggered by the decision and frustrated that the crumbling concrete monstrosity is set to remain standing for decades to come.”

However, Jack Theaker, a third-year student, welcomed the protections. “It’s fantastic news. I’ve always thought perspective is critical in architecture, and when viewed from either Kingsgate bridge or rambling up New Elvet – one can appreciate this project in its historic setting.

“Dunelm house stands not only as one of the finest examples of modernist architecture in a medieval setting, but also as a testament to the city’s historic ability to move with the times whilst retaining its illustrious heritage – something that is increasingly being jeopardised by such postmodern developments as Millburngate and The Riverwalk Waterside.”

The Twentieth Century Society’s full announcement can be found here.

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