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Government to review decision not to list Dunelm House

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The Department for Culture Media & Sport (DCMS) has said it will review its decision not to list Dunelm House in Durham as the row over the Brutalist building’s future continues 

The culture secretary Karen Bradley ruled in December that the Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP) building, completed in 1966, did not merit a Grade II listing, going against Historic England’s recommendation to grant heritage protection.

At the time Bradley said she was also minded to approve a Certificate of Immunity from Listing for the award-winning building next to the River Wear, potentially paving the way for its owner, Durham University, to redevelop the block.

The Twentieth Century Society subsequently challenged the decision.

But in a letter sent to The Twentieth Century Society last month, DCMS designation and heritage protection casework manager Andy Doidge confirmed that the department would look again at the refusal.

’When reviewing a decision the Secretary of State has a policy of only considering significant new evidence and/or irregularities in the decision-making process. In this case the Secretary of State has expressed a wish to reconsider all the original evidence in addition to any relevant evidence submitted for the review,’ the letter reads.

’The Secretary of State will, therefore, consider all the available evidence on the architectural and historic interest of Dunelm House and will retake the decision.’

Catherine Croft, director of The Twentieth Century Society, welcomed the decision to review the listing, describing it as ‘very positive news’.

She said: ‘It’s a really interesting building that responds well to setting, both in the gorge of river and adjacent to cathedral. It demonstrates that Brutalism can be equally powerful in a dramatic non-urban setting, as it can in the inner city. It’s just a building that’s joyful to use and walk through.’

Croft disputed Bradley’s view that the1966 structure, designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP) in collaboration with Ove Arup, was technically flawed and that its design had led to ‘sustained problems’ with water ingress.

’I don’t think it is in a bad way. It requires some careful patching-up, but the building is in quite good shape,’ said Croft, who runs a course on the conservation of historic concrete. ‘The building’s condition is not meant to be relevant to the listing, which is on the grounds of architectural and historical quality.’ 

It requires some careful patching-up, but the building is in quite good shape

Last year, Durham University announced its intention to launch an international competition to design a replacement for the five-level concrete building.

The institute has estimated that repairing the building would cost £14.7 million. However, campaign group Save Dunelm House – whose petition has garnered more than 3,000 signatures – has said this is cheaper than building a replacement. 

In March, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, Antony Long, wrote to the petition’s organiser setting out why the university felt the building no longer had a viable future.

Dunelm House, described in 2011 by a previous Durham 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.

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

In its advice report to the DCMS (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.

In a statement to the AJ made after the government’s decision to review the listing, Jane Robinson, chief operating officer, Durham University said: “No final decision has been made regarding the future use of Dunelm House.

’The proposals for the building or site will of course, be subject to the usual statutory consents and consultation which will provide further opportunity for people’s views to be considered.’

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 shell, thus changing its appearance.
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Readers' comments (2)

  • Dunelm House has never struck me as 'designed as a series of half opened drawers in a cabinet' as claimed by Historic England - it'd be one hell of a complicated cabinet, and the comment is so ill informed as to cast doubt on the intellectual resources of English Heritage.
    As for one politician, the minister of the day, having the power of life or death over our architectural heritage, I wonder if this is an abuse of democratic government, and there needs to be stronger checks and balances to prevent personal prejudice, ill-informed notions of affordability or even just plain ignorance getting in the way of civilised judgement.

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  • As someone who attended the University 20 years ago (!) I would be very sad to see the building demolished. It is a great example of the 60s brutalist style and it uses the extreme level changes of the river bank very cleverly. It also had a centralising function in a very disparate collegiate University.

    As an Engineer I'd be very disappointed to think that there are not technical solutions that can solve the durability issues and regenerate the building in the same way as Park Hill in Sheffield. This has to be a better solution all round that another architectural competition.

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