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Culture secretary refuses to reverse Dunelm House listing decision

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Culture secretary Karen Bradley is standing firm on her decision not to list Durham University’s Dunelm House, despite a re-examination of the case for the Brutalist student union building

In August, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced it would re-examine the decision, made last year, to reject strong Historic England advice to list the 1966 building at Grade II.

But having looked again at the evidence, the department has reconfirmed it will not issue a listing and that it is minded to grant a certificate of immunity from listing.

The decision, which can be challenged during the next month, opens the way for the university to carry out a proposed demolition and redevelopment. It claims the the award-winning building, designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP), would be too costly to adapt.

A letter from the DCMS said: ‘The minister recognises that Dunelm House is a thoughtful solution to building on a dramatic, but challenging site, designed by the late Richard Raines, a talented architect, and that it possesses group value with the Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge, and makes a positive contribution to the buffer zone of the Cathedral and Castle Precinct World Heritage Site. However, the minister finds that Dunelm House does not possess special architectural interest…’

In its letter, the department said that the building was ‘not stylistically or structurally innovative’ and had design flaws including a leaky roof and an inefficient use of space.

In addition, it said that the building had lost some of its original interior due to earlier refurbishments.

Conservation group the Twentieth Century Society voiced anger at the decision, and vowed to fight it.

‘The Twentieth Century Society fundamentally disagrees with the minister’s conclusion that Dunelm House lacks architectural significance,’ it said. ‘The society considers that this is a unique building and surpasses any other of its date for its response to its setting.

‘The society does not consider that issues that have arisen largely due to poor maintenance and changing patterns of use can be considered to be flaws in the original design.

‘As a result, the society intends to request a further review of the decision.’

The conservation group said it had requested disclosure of all available documents on the decision via freedom of information requests to DCMS and Historic England.

The department’s decision flies in the face of a detailed advice report prepared by Historic England last year, which said: ‘Dunelm House has been recognised by Historic England as a post-war building of special interest since it first became eligible for listing in the 1990s.

‘In 2016 it is the only students’ union on our revised shortlist of post-war university buildings for listing assessment. This demonstrates our rigorous selection process to “list only the most representative or most significant examples of the type”.

‘The building stands comfortably alongside the best post-war university buildings, and it is therefore recommended for listing at Grade II.’

The five-level concrete building was constructed between 1964 and 1966 by the River Wear to the designs of Richard Raines of the Architects’ Co-Partnership, under the supervision of partner Michael Powers.

It connects to Ove Arup’s Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge, built four years earlier. Arup himself acted as Dunelm House’s structural engineer and architectural adviser and is featured in a bust on one of the outside walls.

In May, Daniel Libeskind described the university’s proposal to flatten Dunelm House as ‘planned amnesia’ and urged it to adapt the building rather than demolish it.

He said: ‘I don’t understand when they say the building doesn’t work anymore. Any older building is the same. You have to adapt it, you do things to it, you have to add to it, transform it, whatever.’

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I wonder how much of this nation's architectural heritage has at some time suffered from roof leaks - or could be criticised for 'inefficient use of space'?
    Why is the Hon. Karen Bradley ignoring the strong recommendation of Historic England? - is she in a race with some of her fellow ministers to see who can do the most damage?

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  • Karen Bradley probably knows very little about architecture, or even “leaky” roofs, so who is advising her? Has she been on a site visit? And who is advising the University? Mending the leaks, improving the insulation and refurbishing/updating the interior is obviously going to cost less than knocking it down and starting again? What’s the use of Historic England if you’re not going to heed their advice?

    It has to be considered as a piece with the bridge, and in relation to it’s setting; and as a work involving one of the world’s greatest engineers. They don’t demolish Wren, Lutyens or Corb yet because the roof leaks or they haven’t been maintained. The FM Dept is usually deficient and poorly funded in most institutions.

    Has the AJ access to any photos of the interior to illustrate the poor use of space, and the damage caused by water ingress? Then we could judge for ourselves. And if you’ve got the time, go to Durham and look at this building in relation to the Cathedral and the town itself. It should be an essential part of every architects education, especially the Cathedral with it’s almost Brutalist and amazing Norman interior.

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  • I wonder if Karen Bradley has actually visited Durham before siding with her personal advisers (?) against the informed advice of Historic England?
    David Farmery is right - this building is part of an absolutely stunning townscape sequence, spanning the centuries as effortlessly as Arup's bridge soars over the Wear.
    Given her academic background in maths and career in tax management and accountancy before entering Parliament, how hard has she worked at gaining an understanding of her role and responsibilities as Culture Secretary?
    Is she familiar with this building in its setting in Durham?
    Does she knows the value of everything, or nothing?

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