Students' Union Building including steps, landing stage and attached walls, 1964-6 by the Architects' Co- Partnership: partner-in-charge Michael Powers; job architect Richard Raines; engineers Ove Arup and Partners. Brutalist style.
Reasons for Designation
Dunelm House, University of Durham 1964-6 by Architects’ Co-Partnership, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: a significant Brutalist building that reflects the latest in architectural thinking for its date;
* Design quality: in response to its extraordinary site, it was carefully designed as a balance of horizontal planes, with vertical accents provided by the monopitch roofs, the rhythm of the mullions and the vertical accent of the single chimney; the impact is striking;
* Planning: a carefully stacked plan representing a creative response to its brief on one of the most challenging sites in the country at the time, resulting in a bold and highly successful design;
* Architects: an important building in Architects' Co-Partnership portfolio, designed by talented young architect Richard Raines, who combined an international knowledge of architecture with specific training under its leading British teachers, John Killick and Peter Smithson at the Architectural Association;
* Group value: it benefits from a very strong group value with the Grade I listed Kingsgate Bridge, and to a lesser but still significant degree with the Cathedral and Castle Precinct World Heritage Site, to which it acts as a visual counterpart across the river;
* Historic interest: the foremost students’ union building of the post-war era in England, which compares with students’ unions being built around the world in the 1960s.
As early as 1957 the University of Durham decided to expand E of the historic Durham peninsula where it had previously built. A new students’ union was planned at the head of New Elvet, joined to the peninsula university buildings by means of a new footbridge across the Wear gorge. The new bridge, Kingsgate Bridge, was commissioned from Ove Arup and Partners and was completed in 1963 (Grade I; National Heritage List for England: 1119766). In 1961 the Architects’ Co-Partnership (ACP) was commissioned to design the students’ union, following testimony from St John’s College Oxford where the firm had designed the much-admired Beehives building in 1958-60 (Grade II; NHLE: 1278860). As at St John’s, the partner in charge was Michael Powers, but at Dunelm House the design was by a young assistant Richard Raines. From the outset Ove Arup & Partners was part of the design team as consultant engineers. The builder
was John Laing, one of the leading contractors of the day, who completed construction at a cost of £350,000.
The university brief for the building was very specific and Raines had to meet it ‘exactly’. Communal facilities were needed so that the 70% of students living in university accommodation could meet those living in other colleges and the 30% living independently had a meeting place. There was to be staff space too and the brief required very separated spaces for these functions. Substantial accommodation was to be built on a steeply sloping site that stretched from the domestic character of New Elvet, down 15.4m (50ft) to the dramatic landscape of the Wear gorge, where right at the river’s edge the architects were to provide a boathouse (Roberts 2013). It was essentially to be a recreational building, designed to provide a wide range of cultural and social opportunities for students outside the curriculum, with a cafeteria, bar, coffee lounge, assembly and meeting rooms. The building was funded by the University Grants Committee and cost considerations were a determining issue. The drawings were made in 1962-4, and Dunelm House was built between 1964-6. The opening of the building in 1966 saw a concert performed by Thelonious Monk, the influential American Jazz musician and composer.
The building was publicised and received some praise in the architectural press. It won a Civic Trust Award, and the RIBA Bronze Medal for 1966, and has always been widely admired in its own right as well as for the strong, modern group it forms with Kingsgate Bridge. An appraisal of the building in 1972 by Jack Lynn writes positively about the building and also comments on the lack of flexibility in the plan form and cites a number of shortcomings of the functioning of the services and the interior decoration, while acknowledging the shortcomings as 'relatively minor troubles in a heavily used building' and that 'Dunelm House has stood up well to harsh treatment'. The Architects’ Journal on 26 October 2011 published a report entitled ‘Britain’s best university buildings: Student Unions’, which identified a ‘top five’ that included Dunelm House and the Cambridge ‘GradPad’ as its 1960s’ examples.
The external form of the building remains largely unchanged, with the exception of an additional set of external stairs added in 1965, replacement main doors and some replacement fenestration and secondary glazing. The internal plan remains largely intact too, although there have been alterations to several of the main spaces: an attempt to remedy water ingress through the roof was provided by the addition of brackets to anchor some of the tiles in place; the cafeteria received a false floor and a new screen, counter and furniture and the original decorative scheme was replaced; the original Scandinavian interiors of the bar were replaced and it was enlarged by incorporating the former reading and billiard rooms and a new counter was installed; the former coffee lounge has been partitioned, with most of it converted to offices; original doors designed as frameless plate glass have mostly been replaced; an additional stair to the bar mezzanine was added in c1970 and a reception area inserted and secondary glazing was added to some parts of the building. In 1989-90 the N part of the building, formerly the separate staff accommodation, was converted to a separate Careers Advisory Service, itself converted in 2013 for use as the University English Language Unit. Some time before 1996 the original caretaker's flat was converted to offices. The form of the original large spaces including the ballroom are relatively unchanged however. More recently stair lifts have been fitted onto the main staircase. The original design of the building included a number of built-in seats, ash trays, lighting, phone booths and a billiard table pedestal, of which a few examples of ash trays and benches remain, and a few original light fittings are retained within plant rooms.
Architects Co-Partnership has claim to be the first major post-war practice. It was established in July 1939 as the Architects’ Co-operative Partnership by 11 friends who had met at the Architectural Association. They shared youth and an innocent idealism and wanted to work together as equals and in the modern idiom, and to build buildings that would be socially useful. Their most important single commission was Michael Powers’ (1915-94) rubber factory at Brynmawr near Ebbw Vale, Wales, designed in close collaboration with Ove Arup and Partners, which provided model working conditions with fine welfare and recreational facilities. It was the most innovative building in Britain of the immediate post-war years and was listed Grade II* in 1985 (demolished with listed building consent 2002). In the early 1950s ACP built many schools and laboratories, they designed the administration and VIP wing of the Festival of Britain and they soon secured university work. The Beehives at St John’s College, Oxford was led by Powers and built in 1958-60, and ACP also designed three houses for college fellows (1963, all listed Grade II). Powers also designed a new entrance to the President’s Lodgings at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, completed the building of the St Paul’s Choir School (1963-7, Grade II*) and designed
three residential schools for the National Spastics Society that were pioneering achievements in designing for the disabled. He also worked at Bryanston and Hanford schools in Dorset, and on ACP’s Wolfson Building at Trinity College Cambridge (1972). Though lacking the ideological drive of some partners, Powers is considered the most sensitive architect of the team, and he is recognised for a series of well-crafted educational buildings that introduced modernism to universities like Oxford and Durham where traditional, classical architecture had previously held sway. Overall seven of the practice's buildings have received listed status.
By the early 1960s it was left to a rising generation of assistants to reinvigorate the practice, made possible by the office’s relaxed structure that enabled each partner to encourage new talent. Of these Richard Mitchell Raines’s work at Durham was the most important. Born in 1929 in the United States, he entered the Architectural Association, and between 1956 and 1958 he studied under John Killick and Peter Smithson. Other tutors included James Stirling and James Gowan, while John Summerson and Reyner Banham taught architectural history. Recently graduated, Raines joined ACP in 1961 and assisted Michael Powers on ‘several small buildings’ before he was entrusted with Dunelm House. In 1969 he joined Arup Associates, where his work included the innovative Bush Lane House completed in 1976, which won the Structural Steel Design Award and an RIBA award for 1977 for its external frame. Raines left for Austin- Smith: Lord Architects in 1983, working mainly on interiors and although now (2016) he is semi-retired, he remains a registered architect in private practice.
Richard Raines was interviewed by Historic England staff in March 2016: he stated that while he regretted the separation between the facilities for staff and students, he had no say on this or other matters and he also had to fulfil all the university’s requirements within the rigid cost limits of the University Grants Committee, which was tightening its budgets in 1962. Raines also worked closely with a team at Ove Arup and Partners led by John Martin, who had been Arup’s assistant on the bridge, but was most insistent that at Dunelm House the engineer’s role was secondary, and that close collaboration with the consultants was critical. He described ‘a most happy collaboration’ between most involved. It has been suggested that the nature of the roof was a late design change, but this is denied by the architect who insists that the design of the roof was an integral part of the design overall, but that the tiled covering was agreed only after special funding was secured from the Royal Fine Art Commission.
Sir Ove Arup (1895-1988) founded his engineering firm in 1946, which engineered many post-war buildings including Park Hill, Sheffield and the Barbican, London. Arup had little personal involvement with these schemes with the exception of Kingsgate Bridge. His strength was less as a designer than as a profound intellectual who gave the firm its academic prowess, which was reflected in the ethos with which he managed the firm. As well as attracting a remarkable team of engineers, Arup’s interest in architecture led him in 1952 to employ an in-house architect, Philip Dowson, and in 1963 to found Arup Associates, a parallel multi-disciplinary practice of architects, engineers and quantity surveyors.
STUDENTS UNION BUILDINGS
Students’ unions originated in the United States in 1896 as buildings providing a range of recreational and catering facilities for students living at home or in ‘digs’, unconnected with a representative or political organisation. In the United Kingdom, similar student buildings became a feature of red-brick universities and smaller higher education colleges; the first was 1910-13 at Liverpool University (NHLE: 1068368), and both it and the 1924 building at Newcastle University (NHLE: 1355263) are the only two listed student union buildings in England. The National Union of Students in the United Kingdom was founded in 1922 as part of the peace movement that followed the First World War, and specifically as an arm of the Confederation International des Étudiants launched in Prague to improve understanding and friendship between the future leaders of different nations. The rapid expansion of higher education after the Second World War included several new students’ unions with early examples in a minimally classical style. Only slowly did modernism take over for university buildings, and the students’ unions illustrate this story in miniature. Examples include: Birmingham by Neville Conder (1958-62); Newcastle extended in 1960-4 by William Whitfield, and the Richmond Building in Bristol, opened in 1965 by Alec French & Partners. Universities with a strongly collegiate structure and with most of the students living in close proximity, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Reading and the new universities built in the 1960s, do not have a major students’ union building; an exception, though not technically a students' union, is the Graduate Centre built by Cambridge University by Howell, Killick, Partridge and Amis from 1964-7
(NHLE: 1407952) which provides dining facilities and meeting rooms for graduate students. The reduction of government funding for new building after 1965 brought an end to the boom in university buildings including students’ unions. The reorganisation of colleges of higher education as polytechnics from 1965 onwards saw more students’ unions established but little new building; the few examples from the 1970s were very modest. However, more new students’ unions have been built since the 1990s when the former polytechnics were given university status. Examples include Sunderland by FaulknerBrowns and Paisley by Page & Park, both from 2004.
Students' Union Building including steps and landing stage, 1964-6 by the Architects' Co-Partnership: partner-in-charge Michael Powers; job architect Richard Raines; engineers Ove Arup and Partners. Brutalist style.
MATERIALS: reinforced concrete construction, part in-situ, part pre-cast, and clad in foamed slag aggregate from the Consett Steel Works, with some boardmarking. The roof is formed of pre-cast concrete interlocking slabs sixteen feet long by two inches thick.
PLAN: a broad central staircase links the road and river, with wide landings on each level from which the other accommodation is reached on either side. The building thus steps down, with balconies on several levels. The principal spaces comprise: bars, a cafeteria, the Margot Fonteyn Ballroom and a gymnasium, with ancillary accommodation around them and the largest rooms, including the gymnasia and ballroom, set at the bottom and the smaller offices at the top. Student and staff accommodation was kept separate within the plan.
EXTERIOR: the building abuts the Grade I listed Kingsgate Bridge and is situated on a site that is steeply sloping. The building thus steps down the slope of the ravine to the River Wear and has seven levels, with small-scale massing to the street and large-scale to the river gorge. The site enables bars and cafes to be built on several levels and to make the most of the spectacular views. The roof, which is a mixture of flat and E and W sloping forms, is formed of pre-cast concrete interlocking slabs, which form a serrated roofline above the eaves on all elevations; a small, central roof garden has been incorporated. Rainwater outlets from the concrete gutters set within the building structure are provided by chains and gargoyles in some areas. The concrete cover of all elevations displays spalling and delamination with reinforcement visible in areas; discolouration is clearly evident and patch repairs have been attempted. Mullioned windows throughout are set at a maximum of six-foot centres with a minimum of one foot, and the opening lights have two-foot centres. Much of the glazing is fixed directly and set back behind the irregular projecting mullions, the rest is in metal surrounds. The mullion pattern is repeated in the clerestory glazing within the roof which serves the cafeteria, main bar and staircase.
The W elevation fronting the river is broken down into a series of concrete boxes terraced into the riverbank ending with the boathouse and landing stage, which is reached via steep steps and has its own entrance onto the river. This elevation appears to be divided into three vertical units externally, that break up the bulk of the exterior. The solid wall of the projecting ballroom dominates the central unit with the cafeteria and roof terrace above with a clerestory window. To the right is the solid wall of the Vane Tempest Hall, with coffee bar and with its separate terrace and clerestory windows above. To the left is the former staff quarters situated above a car park level. The S side has a steep flight of steps leading to the upper level entrance and behind is a large asymmetrical mullioned window to the main range, with to the right a replacement plaster bust of Ove Arup. To the right is a prominent corner chimney set in its 'L'- shaped corner behind the main range, within a sunken yard. An original entrance on this elevation is fitted with replacement double entrance doors at the corner of New Elvet; the latter is reached by a ramp and steps from the bridge and a shallow concrete stair from the roadside. An entrance in the E elevation on the level below is reached up a cranked covered way parallel to the street from the N, above which rise the low cantilevered boxes on this side. The N elevation has a wall pierced by hexagonal openings below a ramp now serving the English Language Unit in the former staff area on this side of building, which extends over a car park and vehicular service access from New Elvet. The former staff area is reached by a separate stepped access and has timber double doors that repeat the mullion motif.
INTERIOR: the original plan of the building is retained with entrances at the rear, from which views of the building down to the river terraces are gained. Access through the building is provided from the road to the ballroom by means of a large staircase, which forms a spine through the building with wide landings to each level, and which serves the various rooms; some of these landings give fine views of the E end of Durham Cathedral. At the foot of the slope the boathouse is entered from outside. Throughout, floor coverings are mostly quarry tiled and vertical and horizontal surfaces are exposed board-marked concrete, now all painted over (with the exception of those in some storage and plant rooms). Walls are almost all structural and support the cantilevered form of the building as it descends the ravine. The topmost floor mainly comprises offices and the former caretaker's flat, the latter retaining its original plan with a series of rooms to the lower floor and a mezzanine level reached by a staircase. Bars, a shop, offices and the cafeteria are set on the two intermediate levels, with a central roof garden accessed from the upper of these floors. The cafeteria is one of the principal spaces and is a double-height space with clerestory glazing and a curved acoustic ceiling formed of slatted timber; it has an inserted raised floor over part of it. Doors through the W wall give access to a two-level roof terrace. The former coffee shop on the same level has been converted to an open plan office. Below these floors is the Vane Tempest Hall, a smaller performance space with a wooden stage, a timber-boarded floor and an acoustic, boarded roof. A set of concrete steps leading down to the principal hall, the Margot Fonteyn Ballroom, with a sunken, sprung floor and high, acoustic, boarded ceiling. These large volumes are deliberately concealed by being at the bottom of the site. The former staff accommodation at the north of the building including a dining room, bar, lounge and guest rooms has been converted to offices, and while some spaces remain intact, others have been pierced and subdivided.
Overall the various interiors are plain and simple. Concrete furniture was originally built-in and purpose designed and at least three fixed concrete benches and three ash trays to two of the landings remain, and a single concrete bench to the bar roof terrace, but otherwise most of these original fittings have been removed. A single original pivoted and frame-less door is retained on a semi-external door adjacent to the former coffee shop. Various service* and plant rooms* are arranged across several floors and in some of these, the underside of the ceilings below the original roof are water stained indicating that there has been water ingress.
* Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that all plant, sanitary ware and kitchen fittings are not of special architectural or historic interest.