Is Purpose Set In Stone?

The Tate Modern with its extension, Switch House. It was never meant to be like this…

Last week I attempted to lay out how the Student Union voted for immunity from listing for Dunelm House citing dubious reasons. I didn’t mention how this lack of internal logic affects the other decisions they make. Last Tuesday the majority of voting members in the union, including the President, voted against introducing a referendum on free education. We thus find ourselves being led round a nightmarish loop of democracy that obliges students to lose interest throughout the process to the point where claims to genuine representation are increasingly nullified. See thus:

1. Students vote for standing elected members

2. Elected members vote against a vote to determine the majority view of students on an important issue

3. Elected members expect students to and keep voting for them despite denying them a vote on an important issue

4. Students vote (in smaller numbers) for standing elected members [the process repeats…]

Back to demolition. Last week there were scattered mentions of repurposing Dunelm House to a building if it did transpire that the students genuinely did not want the building to be their union. We know that the university currently has two sites for a student union building, so with this guarantee, we as students we should open to the option of repurposing as well as renovating the Dunelm House site.

If we fix the democratic process above, we could actually find out whether students want the DSU as their building. If yes, then the argument to repair it and not demolish wins. If, conversely, students turn out not to like the DSU, then the university can change both its purpose and audience to boost the profile of the building, the University, and the City of Durham and North East generally. Three alternatives:

1) Art Gallery

Repurpose Dunelm House, during renovation, into a multiple-use creative arts space. The best British art institutions are repurposed buildings (the Tate Modern, the Newcastle Baltic, St Martin’s College, Saltaire). Renovations oblige philosophical statements about why it was right the renovation was pursued, and they can be moving and dignified. Baltic’s history as a flour mill represents an industrialised and powerful Newcastle that has now ebbed away to rather explore art in the 21st century. Durham could create a similar story tailored to the medievalism of the city and matching the poetic import of Walter Scott’s ‘Grey Towers’.

Dunelm House has been used as an exhibition space in the past, exhibiting watercolour paintings of the North East landscape of local artists (these tend now to be shown in the UNESCO centre on Palace Green). Durham University has the advantage of being able to show of its impressive modern art collection in a space specifically dedicated to it (as the Palatine Centre is not).

2) Conservation project

Turn Dunelm House into a heritage site under the National Trust, English Heritage or the Durham City Trust. The National Trust has recently acquired an extensive modernist collection which includes Erno Goldfinger’s 3 Willow Road domicile in Hampstead. Modernism generally goes against the aesthetic grain of these institutions, but their traditionalism fades as time goes by and as modernism acquires more historicity.

Unlike in an art gallery, a conservation project would allow people to see Dunelm House with historically accurate interiors, be it through original or reproduction furniture. It could situate it in its post-war optimistic history and be a handy counterpoint to the heavy medievalism of the Bailey. A carefully-construed historical understanding would develop a dignity both for the building and more importantly, a pride for locals and students in their heritage. The current design of the building is generic and a sign that the university has allowed it to degenerate stylistically, in the same way that, functionally, it has allowed water damage to remain a persistent problem for decades. 

3) Hotel

Certainly the nuclear option, making Dunelm House a ‘modernist hotel’ would be the most morally problematic due to fact it would undermine its communal, academic origins. The advantage is that as private enterprise, it would sidestep issues of abandonment or funding due to the fact that modernists all over the world would pay ample buck to stay in the hotel. Dunelm House is big enough to have a decent amount of rooms, and it would pay homage to the original vision in a key visual regard. Durham University could sustainably capitalise out of this in both actual money and boosting of reputation; not to mention the fact it would vastly improve tourism in the area.

That you must either support the building entirely or support the demolition scheme entirely is a false dichotomy. Architectural purposes are not set into their stone. William the Conqueror did not build the Tower of London with the intention of it becoming a historical site to explain English history 1,000 years after he died. Neither was Durham Castle originally intended to be a university college. Times change and meanings change. We should be offered the chance to play our part in the history of the city in a way that is truly representative and that cares about its, and our, cultural and historical integrity. This demolition will erase history, and the thousands of people involved within it.

I suppose that workable, if idealistic, arguments such as these lose their clout when we factor in the point that some people, somewhere in this process, are exchanging a lot of money. It is unsurprising that as students, we all seem clueless as to what is going on.  

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