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Culture secretary rejects listing for Durham Uni's Brutalist students union building


The culture secretary has rejected Historic England’s advice and refused to list Dunelm House, the Brutalist students union building at Durham University designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP)

Karen Bradley ruled that the five-level concrete building next to the River Wear, completed in 1966, did not merit a Grade II listing, claiming the structure 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 (COI) from Listing for the award-winning building – a move that paves the way for Durham University to redevelop the block, which connects to Ove Arup’s Grade I-listed Kingsgate Bridge. Arup supervised the construction of Dunelm House acting as structural engineer and architectural advisor on the scheme.

Bradley’s decision to ignore Historic England’s recommendation was slammed by the Twentieth Century Society which had helped prepare the listing bid.

The society’s director, Catherine Croft, said: ‘We consider the award-winning Dunelm House to be a remarkably intact survivor of its era, historically and architecturally significant, and to have group value with the beautiful Kingsgate Bridge adjacent.

‘Dunelm House is a remarkably intact survivor of its era’

‘We are extremely disappointed that the minister has chosen to disregard the view of her heritage advisers [Historic England] and the Society in making this decision.’

Historic England’s director for listing, Roger Bowdler, said: ‘Although we recommended Dunelm House for listing, the secretary of state has concluded that it does not meet the high tests necessary for a building if this age. While we are disappointed, we respect her decision. The listing system allows for a difference of opinion, and last year the DCMS agreed with 99.8 per cent of our recommendations.’

He added: ‘Dunelm House is a strong building which complements the Grade I-listed Kingsgate Footbridge. It won awards on its completion in 1966 and plays a prominent part in the World Heritage Site and conservation area. We hope that the university can take forward its plans for its premises in a way which upholds the heritage significance of this outstanding site.’

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. 

Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called 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 RIBA Bronze Medal for 1966, and was praised by the AJ as ‘uncompromisingly modern yet markedly respectful of the splendour of the site’.

It is unclear what Durham University plans to do with the site, although in June a spokeswoman for the university admitted it had applied to Historic England for a COI for Dunelm House ‘so that due consideration can be given to its future’.

Dunelm House

Dunelm House

Reasons for refusal – excerpt from Historic England 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.

Readers' comments (4)

  • What is the point of having a listing system?! It should protect truly unique and inspiring buildings like this one. Inevitably it will be knocked down and replaced with an average, bland, cheap building due to its high maintenance costs. Happy to join a campaign.

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  • May be there should be a referendum to seek opinions. Its always worrying when people in position of power make decisions against the advise of the experts, making judgements based on knowledge and experience in the interest of the subject itself. Perhaps, if this was a new design it would be seen as an exemplary award winning design!

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  • The individual who is culture secretary is a transient position and our architectural heritage is timeless. There goes another building of merit......

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  • What a coincidence - the same Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP features on page 11 of today's 'Private Eye', criticised for shooting from the hip in the sacking of an Ofcom main board member. He'd been recruited to chair their content board to oversee the BBC's editorial standards from next spring, as Ofcom is taking over regulation of the BBC.

    She's also been reported (Guardian 29th November) to have apparently caused considerable disquiet by vetoing the appointment of a highly qualified minority ethnic female candidate proposed by Ofcom as a non-executive director of Channel Four; the four other candidates, all high calibre white males, were approved.

    Apparently, the 'Unknown Minister' isn't regarded in Whitehall as the brightest sixpence in the Christmas pudding, but nevertheless, I'd like to propose her as the Philistine of the Month, or maybe of the year - depending on her progress.

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