Dunelm House – a Brutalist Durham building threatened with demolition – could be saved from the wrecking ball thanks to a recently announced review. 

The building – a series of concrete cubes clinging to the cliffs above the River Wear opposite Durham Cathedral – currently houses Durham University’s student union. The university, however, would like to demolish the structure and replace it with a purpose-built performance space. 

Dunelm House was constructed in the 1960s and soon won an award for its innovative design. It has, however, long divided opinion among Durham locals, with some seeing it as a brave example of forward-thinking architecture and others dismissing it as an eyesore.

Dunelm House’s supporters – including architecture group the Twentieth Century Society and the Save Dunelm House Campaign – have been trying to win listed status for the building, as this would make it much more difficult to knock down. 

Despite a recommendation from Historic England that this status should be granted, culture secretary Karen Bradley last year decided not to list the building and said she was ‘minded’ to approve an application from Durham University for a certificate of immunity from listing. 

But now – following an appeal from the Twentieth Century Society – the Department of Culture has confirmed that there will be a review of Ms Bradley’s decision.

The Save Dunelm House Campaign tweeted that this was “fantastic news.” 

Jane Robinson, the chief operating officer for Durham University, said, “No final decision has been made regarding the future use of Dunelm House.”

“The proposals for the 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’s supporters argue that the building is simply in need of repairs and restoration, but the university claims that repairing and modernising the building would cost £14.7 million. 

The university also points out that Dunelm House was designed to cope with student numbers of 3,000, not the 17,500 students currently at Durham. The university would like to stage an international competition to choose a design for Dunelm House’s replacement.

Dunelm House’s unusual layout stems from the fact it had to be built on a slope that included a 50-foot drop down to the Wear. A series of interconnected concrete cubes, the building contains a completely straight internal staircase meant to mimic a street climbing up from the river.

The Twentieth Century Society will hold a conference on brutalist architecture in Durham in October, much of which will focus on Dunelm House. For more information, please email cvac@durham.ac.uk.

(Featured image courtesy of Andrew Bowden, from Flickr Creative Commons)

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