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C20 Society appeals against Dunelm House listing rejection

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The Twentieth Century Society is to appeal against the culture secretary’s refusal to list Dunelm House, the Brutalist students union building at Durham University designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP)

Last month, Durham University announced its intention to launch an international competition to design a replacement for the five-level concrete building, which culture secretary Karen Bradley had ruled did not merit a Grade II listing.

The Twentieth Century Society has now announced that it will contest Bradley’s decision, having previously criticised her for ignoring Historic England’s advice. 

Bradley, who went against Historic England’s recommendation to grant listed status, claimed that ACP’s 1966 structure, designed in collaboration with Ove Arup, was technically flawed and that its design had led to ‘sustained problems’ with water ingress.

She added that she was minded to approve a Certificate of Immunity from Listing for the award-winning building next to the River Wear, which would pave the way for Durham University to redevelop the block.

Dunelm House, described in 2011 by the university’s vice-chancellor Chris Higgins as one of ‘the finest examples of 20th-century architecture in the city’, famously features a bust of Arup on one of its outside walls and connects to Arup’s Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge. Arup supervised the construction of Dunelm House, acting as structural engineer and architectural adviser on the scheme.

Durham University has estimated that repairing the building would cost £14.7 million. However, campaign group Save Dunelm House – whose petition has garnered more than 2,000 signatures – has said this is cheaper than building a replacement. 

In its advice report (read in full), Historic England praised the building as a ‘quality post-war design of dramatic sculptural form and considerable architectural interest’.

The report states: ‘Historic England considers Dunelm House to be an expressive building, carefully designed as a balance of horizontal planes, as a series of half-open drawers in a cabinet, with vertical accents provided by the monopitch roofs, the rhythm of mullions similar to those of Le Corbusier’s Monastery La Tourette, and the vertical accent of the single chimney. The impact is visually striking.

‘The 1972 reappraisal also described the way the horizontal layers of the building are visually broken up to create interest and balance. In this it resembles other listed post-war university buildings, such as the long horizontal blocks by Leslie Martin, including Middleton Hall, University of Hull [Grade II-listed].’ 

Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote of the block: ‘Brutalist by tradition but not brutal to the landscape … the elements, though bold, [are] sensitively composed’.

The building won both a Civic Trust award and the 1966 RIBA Bronze Medal, and was praised by the AJ as ‘uncompromisingly modern yet markedly respectful of the splendour of the site’.

TV presenter and former Welsh international gymnast Gabby Logan recently took to Twitter to show her support for the building. She tweeted to her 409,000 followers: ‘Very sad news. Spent many a happy afternoon (and evening) in Dunelm.’

Alan Baxter, an engineer specialising in urban design and a former member of English Heritage’s London Advisory Committee, has also said that the building should be listed.

He said: ‘Nearly all exposed concrete buildings have some problems with reinforcement cover, and there are now sensitive solutions.

’In the same way that many valued historic buildings have flaws far worse than Dunelm House in their external materials, like the masonry of the Palace of Westminster, it does not mean they should not be listed.’

Dunelm House

Dunelm House

Reasons for refusal – excerpt from Historic England’s letter to The Twentieth Century Society

[The secretary of state] has decided that Dunelm House does not possess the special architectural or historic interest to merit listing. In particular, she considers that technical flaws mean that it does not exhibit sufficient design quality to be of special architectural interest, noting design and construction flaws that include:

  •  flaws inherent in the design of the building’s concrete roof – a late design change that has led to sustained problems concerning water ingress; and
  •  inadequate concrete cover over its external horizontal and vertical services that could necessitate the creation of a second external shall, thus changing its appearance.
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Readers' comments (3)

  • And what about the bridge? Is this up for demolition too?

    Of all the countless buildings Ove Arup himself could have chosen he said the Durham footbridge was his favourite structure. For those who don't know, it was built in two parts parallel to the river and rotated into position.

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  • The same people who want rid of the students' union probably see the bridge as a ghastly blot on the landscape, whereas in fact they both complement their setting and are intrinsic parts of the recent history of Durham - only those of the Prince Charles school of architectural pastiche would think otherwise.

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  • Great news that the Twentieth Century society are appealing against the flawed decision not to list this masterpiece. Maintenance issues are not a reasonable excuse to demolish the building! I am amazed that it is not already listed.

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