Save Dunelm House from the wrecking ball

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Save Dunelm House from the wrecking ball
Dunelm House / © Mark Tallentire/Durham University
Save Dunelm House from the wrecking ball
Dunelm House / © Mark Tallentire/Durham University

Durham’s student union building, once graced by Thelonius Monk, is a brutalist gem in need of renovation, not demolition

Was Thelonius Monk famous? No, say Montagu Evans, consultants for the University of Durham in its campaign to prevent the listing of its student union building known as Dunelm House. “Whilst Monk is an acknowledged innovator in the ‘hard bop’ style,” they say, straying into jazz nobility from their usual specialist subject of construction and planning, “he is hardly a household name, even amongst Americans.” Their reason for addressing this question is that Monk, the second-most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, played at the building’s opening in 1966. Montagu Evans feels it must quash any idea that “it was a popular location for notable figures giving concerts”, which might help the case for listing it.

It and the university have so far been successful, though the Monk question might not have been pivotal. They have persuaded the secretary of state for culture, media and sport to grant a certificate of immunity, which stops the building from being listed for five years, during which time its owners can alter or demolish it as they please. They argue that a combination of faulty concrete, a leaky roof, poor insulation, inflexible construction, inadequate servicing and poor accessibility mean that it is unworthy of listing. They say that, apart from these issues, “it is not stylistically innovative… the architect is not an acknowledged leader of post-WWII British design… The interiors themselves are ordinary.”

With all due respect to Montagu Evans, and while acknowledging my own limited knowledge of jazz, I feel that anyone who dismisses Thelonius Monk so easily is also likely to miss the nuances that make Dunelm House, a building that clambers into the steep gorge of the river Wear, very much not “ordinary”. It is rather a machine for inhabiting the landscape, a manmade terrain of rooms and spaces – large, intimate, sociable, secluded, high, low, top-lit, side-lit – which, grouped around a plunging and generous staircase, help you see the banks of green on the other side and feel the slopes of the ground. It is a way of being in the gorge while also – as a human being rather than a bird – using the facilities offered to human students, such as a bar, ballroom, games room, events rooms, meeting rooms and offices. […]

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