The Charrette

Ellie Gair, Claire Harper, Hun Pu

Last week a design charrette organised by a group of campaigners and the Twentieth Century Society (C20) brought together five teams of architects, structural and building services engineers to rethink the future of a Dunelm House; the brutalist Students Union building at Durham University.

There were five teams of architects and engineers, including national names such as Levitt Bernstein, Hawkins\Brown and 6a Architects and smaller practices, Studio Shaw and Newcastle-based Mawson Kerr. Engineers from Webb Yates, Skelly and Couch, AKT II and Studio Horn brought structural, environmental and building services expertise.

The campaign group Save Dunelm House, comprising students and academics at Durham University, local architects and historians was set up in December 2016, following notice of an application for Immunity from Listing for the building having been submitted by Durham University.  The building is regarded by its supporters (some 3000 of which signed a petition to save the building in 2016) as a behemoth of new brutalism.  Designed between 1962 - 64 by the Architects Co-Partnership (ACP), it clings to the bankside of the River Wear gorge, in the shadow of the famous Durham Cathedral towers and providing weighty counterpoint to the soaring, grade I listed, Kingsgate Bridge. 

Durham University as patrons and custodians of the building maintain that no decisions have yet been taken in regard to the future of Dunelm House.  Yet, various technical challenges associated with spalling concrete, a leaking roof, accessibility issues and the inadaptability of the building to the modern needs of a Students’ Union continue to be cited as cause for uncertainty over its future.  None of these problems are uncommon, or insurmountable, but could nevertheless seal the fate of the building if left unchallenged. 

The brief for the charrette called for thoughtful, creative, and importantly, viable proposals for how the building could be reconfigured, repaired and reused.  The organiser’s intention of was to draw on the skills that architects and engineers bring to solve problems and most importantly, to make visible, possible future scenarios, demonstrating that demolition is far from a fait accompli.  


The event was held in one of the function rooms at Dunelm House normally used for yoga classes, exams, and occasional pole dancing sessions.  Teams were set up around wobbly trestle tables with little more than a defunct scanner by way of technical facilities.  The morning began with an introduction by Save Dunelm House campaign organiser, James Perry. Catherine Croft, director of 20th Century Society then gave an impassioned speech on the importance of saving Dunelm House.  Felicity Raines, widow of the late project architect, Dicky Raines, was also there on the day to thank the teams for their time and expertise.  She shared photographs of the building upon its completion in 1966, which portrayed a very different Dunelm House to the one seen today. Its original white exposed concrete walls, unencumbered corridors and stairs, beautiful Scandinavian furnishings, minimalist light fittings and Alvar Aalto inspired ceilings, painted a stark contrast to the poorly thought out renovations since. For all who were present, they demonstrated what the building could be again with some care and determination.


The Students’ Union staff also offered teams an informal tour of the building and an opportunity to hear first-hand the views of its users, Durham Students’ Union (DSU), who were keen to point out that the building was not currently fit for purpose. Although, it is also reported that the DSU have been promised a new building if the Dunelm House site is redeveloped. 

Proposals and Comments

As the day neared an end, the review panel convened to hear the teams present their ideas.  The panel comprised Catherine Croft from Twentieth Century Society, Graham Farmer as Director of Architecture at Newcastle University, author and journalist Owen Hatherley, as well as Ian Rammage, Assistant Director of Estates representing Durham University.

A rich range of solutions were proposed, tackling issues of use and adaptability, as well as accessibility, concrete and roof repair and thermal performance.

1.     Levitt Bernstein’s sensitive restoration of DH addressed the practical repair and maintenance of the building fabric and services, with clear and sensible ways to overcome accessibility issues. The lack of a strong vision for DH (repurposing the building as a teaching and conference centre) left the panel unenthused but acknowledged that resolving key practical issues was a great place to start.


2.     Second up was the Hawkins\Brown team led by Roger Hawkins who suggested for the building to become a boutique hotel, “the best hotel in Durham”. Overall, the panel appreciated the need for DH to become more outward facing, attracting other visitors and users of the building. However, Owen Hatherley whose greatest delight in the building was the sense of being in a multilayered and cascading set of spaces, felt this would be lost if DH was subdivided into hotel rooms.


3.     For 6a Architects, spearheaded by Tim Collett who was the project architect of Newport Street Gallery, there was a desire to return DH to its original social agenda. The scheme proposed a new tower, both to relieve pressure on space within the building as well as mediating access between the five levels in the building. Though initially appearing acontextual, the tower addition grew on the panel who enjoyed the narrative of continuing the building’s radicalism.


4.     Newly established London practice Studio Shaw proposed a radical transformation of DH with the introduction of an outdoor public cloisteresque park for students, locals and tourists to rest and dwell. An indoor hall for cultural events and concerts was also suggested, removing partitions inside DH. At which architectural integrity was raised by the panel.


5.     Finally, Mawson Kerr paired with Steve Webb (co-founder of Webb Yates), reimagined a re-use of DH that engaged with the wider community of County Durham; an artisanal training college in partnership with Durham University. The scheme sought to maximise useable floor area, providing studio, workshop and exhibition spaces in the large interior volumes and turning the problem of concrete repair into its own use, an idea that Graham Farmer particularly enjoyed as a kind of live experiment.


It was no surprise to the organisers that Durham University Estates representative was unconvinced by each and all of the proposals.  Questions were raised about their economic viability and appropriateness to the University’s future plan (as yet unseen by campaign organisers).  At the end of discussions, challenged on their commitment to really exploring a future for the building, the University resorted to the inflexibility of the building, which seemed to disregard the colourful and inventive options for reconfiguring the building displayed around the room. 

Without doubt, pedagogies will continue to change in Universities. But as shown in the refurbishment and adaptation of historic buildings, technology has proved time and time again to render any spatial arrangements workable for the twenty-first century.  Owen Hatherley perhaps highlighted the risk for this building most succinctly when he suggested that Dunelm House could continue to be a fantastic Students’ Union, if only it weren’t in Durham.   

Given the diversity of ingenious and creative ideas proposed in as little as four hours during this design charrette, one can imagine what could be achieved from a more positive and engaged approach from the university.

What next?

The design charrette was, by all measures, a great success, generating thoughtful and intelligent solutions and potential futures for Dunelm House.  Yet the continued pessimism from the University demonstrates that the greatest challenge to overcome, before any actual redesign can take place, is that of changing the perception of Durham University towards Dunelm House, from a cumbersome problem to a valuable asset.  It’s this concept of ‘value’ which needs to be assessed, beyond functionality, or aesthetic value, situating this important work of post war university architecture within the historic social and architectural fabric of Durham City. 

As has been the case throughout history for many buildings, not only brutalism, the tide of public opinion about what is (or isn’t) aesthetically fashionable is often what can condemn a building to an early grave. This factor can’t be disregarded, especially in the case of increasingly corporate and commercially competitive universities in which a well-defined campus ‘image’ can help attract students from all over the globe.

However, aesthetic fashions weave in and out of history, as can clearly be seen by the clearing of swathes of Victorian building in the early post-war period, only to be missed once their architectural merit was realised post-demolition. Brutalism’s own merits in radical, socio-political ethics and design capture a pivotal moment in our built history and, with Dunelm House as a prime example, it too will undoubtedly be missed if it is lost. The question is, how to change public opinion before it is too late?     

Perhaps the catalyst of this change could stem from activating the student body who, in this age of education with increasingly business-like structures, hold more sway than they realise.  Or possibly it is a question of engaging the wider public in understanding the socio-political ethics in Brutalist design.  Then, in the case of Dunelm House, could an affection for both this unique socially motivated, deeply contextual design galvanise public support and sway the decision making of the University? Whatever the case, the campaign around Dunelm House raises fundamental questions about how architecture is valued today and the role of civic institutions as custodians and curators of our cities and towns.

The Teams