Dunelm House (or DSU) represents the pinnacle of North Eastern modernist architecture; an archetype of the Brutalist school. It revels in exposed concrete and harsh angles, and frequently employs the classic wood grain finish on the concrete, derived from how the concrete was moulded and shaped. Brutalist buildings are renowned for their refusal to concede to their environment, in not adapting vernacular styles. The ability for Dunelm House to simultaneously have its cake and eat it is what makes it so extraordinary. Dunelm House is a building of excellent condition with these typical brutalist features, but also takes cues from its environment to conspicuously blend in in a way that other brutalist buildings cannot. The building slopes down into the bank to fit in with the peculiar differences in height the peninsula has compared to the Wear. The Kingsgate Bridge follows the tradition of other Durham bridges to have both ends reaching the higher level of the land, as opposed to having steps that take it further down to river level. In a city of conservative architecture, Dunelm House is a tasteful and also striking assertion that traditional cities can have modern perspectives applied to make citizens question the relationship of buildings in the urban environment.
Different eras of history have different economic circumstances. I suspect the relative affluence the country has now as compared to the 1960s and 1970s can illustrate why people dislike Brutalism. In urban spaces, we have become accustomed to huge civic buildings that run up huge budgets and prioritise sheen over utility. An example of a Brutalist icon that we have recently irrevocably lost to an example of the latter is Birmingham Central Library, whose defining feature is a gold sheen, as opposed to attempting to accentuate the features of the buildings of central Birmingham. We live in a time where money can be got for whatever expensive project as long as powerful people want it. By contrast, Brutalism emerges from a time in British history when many cities were war-torn and when money was scarce. In demolishing brutalist buildings, we demolish, piecemeal, our heritage. In the 1950s and 1960s, councils wholesale demolished huge Victorian terraces to make way for new developments. 50 years later, no one will support destroying Victorian builds the same way. The irony is that powerful civic and university authorities are now doing exactly the same thing with modernist architecture, and it will be 50 years before we look back and realise what a huge mistake this was.
Last night, the Durham Student Union voted to support the university’s ‘certificate of immunity from listing’ for Dunelm House on behalf of the 18,000 students it purports to represent. This means that the university is putting a five-year block on the possibility of listing the building, which means they do not have to protect it. In other words, the university has made clear its intention to destroy the building- not only through this certificate but also in its explicit avowals of this intention, which can be found in the Durham University Estate Masterplan 2017-2027. This is my first column for the Bubble as Art & Photography Editor and I am dedicating this column to keep students updated with the arguments for and against the DSU’s demolition. It is my firm belief that students have been kept out of the debate for considerable time now, and regardless of whether they see this building as attractive, I contend we have been misled in myriad ways, and that these confusions can be cleared up. I hope to have submissions from students in the coming weeks to talk about why the case for demolishing the DSU are disingenuous. These cover the issues of disabled access and financial considerations among others. As a prelude to the substantive content of the matter, I think it important to illustrate the context in which this landmark decision was made. The structure of last night’s assembly meeting had the effect of entirely misrepresenting the defensive case.
Those who are against the certificate of immunity and union building demolition- including myself- feel that we have fairly solid reasons to be against this, and also adequate responses to the counterarguments. By contrast it was frustrating yesterday when we tried to broaden the argument to protect Dunelm House- in invoking the wider process of university regeneration, or the issue of architectural merit- and were generally shut down by the chair, who saw these matters as irrelevant to the specific issue of whether this certificate should be sent or not. The lack of emphasis on the broader issues I suspect is not the fault of the chair, but rather the implications of a political procedure that, accidentally or deliberately, poorly reflects how reasoned thought and argument develop and engage. The omissions that the chair led point towards a failure of the wider system that I perceive to be Durham’s student politics. Those of us wishing to protect Dunelm House were only told that last night’s assembly was happening on Saturday. The venue was changed twice and the first set of doors we used were locked. Meeting up with others, we agreed that the little time we had ought to be used to influence members of the assembly with the reasonable hope that this vote could at least be delayed. This is not edifying business.
I see it as more worthy attempting to give the architectural, historical, and modernist case to the student population, to then allow them to have a say over what they want in a Student Union building. Also we need to grapple with the ideas of local civic participation, and perhaps of transforming the DSU into a cultural centre if students agree it is not fit to its initial purpose. I hope that this column, and an increasingly active student base hostile to the university’s dubious practices, will promote this.