An ode to the DSU: Appreciating the building in its historical context

Front view of the DSU

In the 1930s John Betjeman watched as peripheral towns like Slough changed, as remarked in his poem ‘Slough’. Simple village life was replaced by modern working conditions, centred on the factory and the workhouse. The new buildings were here to stay and Betjeman could only look forward with sarcastic optimism to “friendly bombs” brought by a second world war.

I wonder what Betjeman would have made of the DSU and other constructions of the 1960s. These buildings in their ruggedness bare a resemblance to the industrialism of the 19th century. The DSU and other brutalist buildings have often been misunderstood, confusing the untrained eye in their apparent “ugliness”. Recently, Durham University has announced the replacement of Dunelm House, provoking a series of questions among students, chiefly, why has the apparent “eyesore” not been demolished sooner? And, most astoundingly, how has the building won critical acclaim as art?

Catherine Croft of the 20th century society has praised the building as a remarkable example of the brutalist trend. Built under the supervision of celebrated architect Sir Ove Arup (Kingsgate bridge and Sydney Opera house), the building does a remarkable job of following the strong lines, coarse materials, and rough finishes that are typical of brutalism.

The concrete, brutalist exterior of the building

A difficult concept to convey in writing, the DSU makes the interior, visible from the exterior. Each room occupies a distinct place in the outlying architecture, making the function and space discernible to viewers on Kingsgate bridge. To put this in perspective, imagine a stately home. The stone frontispiece greeting the courtyard creates a total view of the observer, but hides the functionality and quantity of the rooms inside. Not so with Dunelm House.

The building has also been praised for its sensitivity, given the architectural context of Durham cathedral just across the peninsula. The DSU, with its muted qualities of green and grey hues, does an excellent job of blending into the surrounding landscape without jarring amongst the other gothic elements.

Just as the importance of one’s eyebrows to the overall make-up of one’s face are noticed only after their removal, so the DSU is likely to be missed only after its replacement. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what’cha got till it’s gone, they’ll pave paradise and put up the Calman Learning Centre Mark 2!”

To fully understand the beauty of buildings like the DSU, their connection to history must be sketched. Architecturally, brutalism’s rejection of the classical aesthetic, represents a break from the fascist designs of the 1930s and 40s. Brutalism turns away from conforming to beauty and order, instead focusing on focusing on Le Corbusier’s ideal of becoming, “machines for living”. 

From a British perspective, concrete testaments like Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, are inextricably linked to the expansion of the socialist state in the 1960s. These buildings were built in a time when our parents were packed off to university, free of charge, off the back of a county grant. The introduction of comprehensive schools, ended the apartheid between technical and grammars. Outside of education, the Macmillan government oversaw significant reforms in the areas of unemployment benefit and urban renewal.

I’m reminded of another benevolent “heap of rubble”, near my parent’s home in Finsbury Park, London. A gigantic sports centre, encased within a pockmarked concrete body, not built to be beautiful but to enrich the lives of Londoners through greater access to sports and leisure. 

Because of brutalism’s connection to the socialist ideals of the 1960s, I can’t help but feel that the decision not to list Dunelm House (by Culture Secretary Karen Bradley) was a political one. As the conservatives pull apart the welfare state, living testaments to the institutional benevolence of the earlier labour governments are torn down.

Although buildings like the DSU are often misconstrued as “oppressive monstrosities”, or a “nod to George Orwell”, they hold innate value in our history and possess a great many other qualities as well. The DSU needs to be renovated, not replaced. Brutalist buildings in particular, need renovation to make clear that their exterior is deliberate, and not a result of neglect and dilapidation. This is exactly why a university campus like Durham is the perfect home for a tribute to the brutalist movement. At first sight, the aesthetic qualities of the building are fathoming. But with careful study, historical awareness, and an open mind, the sublimity of the DSU reveals itself.

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