Daniel Libeskind has described Durham University’s proposal to flatten Dunelm House as ‘planned amnesia’ and urged it to adapt the building rather than demolish it
Libeskind recently worked with the university on the Ogden Centre for Fundamental Physics, which officially opened on March 10, this year.
However, the architect is concerned about Dunelm House—a building potentially at the opposite end of the life cycle.
Speaking to the AJ, Libeskind questioned the university’s ‘logic’ behind its preferred option of demolishing the 1966 Architects’ Co-Partnership building, which is home to the Durham Students’ Union.
‘They’re keeping the bridge, it’s listed, yet not the building,’ he said. ‘This I don’t understand. And 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.’
Besides working with the university on the Ogden Centre, Libeskind discussed his relationship with the city. ‘I just love Durham, it’s a beautiful city,’ he said. ‘I’ve been to Dunelm House many times, you can’t avoid it. It is probably, in the minds of the people at the university, one of the central buildings and perhaps the most recognised building.
I don’t like destroying buildings, because it’s not sustainable … you could fix it
‘The fact that it’s disintegrating is sad, but I wouldn’t want to see the building gone. For starters, I don’t like destroying buildings, because it’s not sustainable. It’s a waste of energy, you could fix it.’
Libeskind also noted that Dunelm House was engineered by Ove Arup, who he regards as ‘probably one of the most famous engineers in the world.
‘A work by Arup is a lesson in history, it’s like studying medieval arches,’ he said.
Arup also designed the Kingsgate Bridge next to Dunelm House. ‘Keeping the footprint, the relationship to the bridge and the water is important,’ remarked Libeskind. ‘You need a talented architect to solve that.’
In fact, Durham University has said it plans to launch an international competition calling for a replacement building on the site - a further indication of its desire to flatten the Students’ Union block.
‘If somebody asked me to do it, I would try to maintain the really iconic elements of the building,’ Libeskind said. ‘You don’t have to be fundamentalist about it. You can keep the spirit, but you can also change it and make it more durable and more adequate to the University’s programme. You do not have to destroy it.
‘Most architects would prefer tabula rasa … but in fact that building has created a context, it can be developed. People could be surprised how fantastic this building can be.’
When Dunelm House opened In 1966 it won the RIBA Bronze Medal and a Civic Trust award. Libeskind touched upon the building’s civic role within the university: ‘[Dunelm House] is a social building, used by generations of students,’ he said. ‘It has a memory to it. So many people have been inside it, and it is remembered by many generations.
‘I don’t think you can buy heritage, it’s organic. The worst idea is planned amnesia. When you plan amnesia, you plan to forget, [and] I think the university is maybe doing this unconsciously.
‘I think that, especially for a university that prides itself on intellectual continuity, it would be ironic to take the one building where all that has manifested and knock it down.
‘I understand the practicalities, and I appreciate the university’s quest to make a sustainable transformation of the building. But that doesn’t mean they have to tear it down. They should be a little bit more creative.’
Responding to Libeskind’s comments, Durham University’s chief operating officer Jane Robinson said: ‘No final decision has been made regarding the future use of Dunelm House, and we have not yet been granted a Certificate of Immunity from Listing (COIL).
‘We recognise that the building will hold special significance for some, but we are also considering the needs of future generations and the wider community.
‘We are committed to our role as custodian of the university estate; we must ensure it is fit for purpose.’
Meanwhile an online petition to save Dunelm House has attracted nearly 3,000 signatures to date.