Durham Students Union and Arup’s Bridge

December 15, 2011

One of the most sensitive and cleverly designed structures of recent times, Kingsgate Bridge by Ove Arup was built in early 60s and was soon joined by a notable neighbouring building, Dunelm House where  Ove Arup Associates also acted as structural engineers.

The simplicity and delicacy of the bridge design is seen next to a large but broken concrete ‘jumble’ sitting on a steep slope almost opposite Durham Cathedral. I have been a great admirer of this contrasting ‘duo’ from the day I saw these in mid 60s and my recent second visit has not disappointed me in any way.

The bridge links Dunelm House to other university buildings across the river, while serving various buildings spread around it all over the city. The design exploited the sloping site to its advantage by hiding a large building complex with some large volumes without breaking the existing medieval texture of Durham.

The views from communal and other windows looking over the river and indeed the bridge offer superb views. The reflections of lights and life within the building  seen from the opposite bank are also quite exciting.

The building plan is conceived by forming a spine of stair route which collects the visitors at two upper most levels and starts their downward journey on this spine.

All major usable spaces are at various landings along the route. The stair widths and landings reflect the significance of destinations. The stair stops at the lowest level which also houses the largest and less frequently used main gathering space.

The original finishes inside the building were restrained and sombre. The grey concrete and quarry tiled floors were used in most places. The current taste and more affluent student population seeks more Pub/Club like atmosphere.

I am certain that such demands have resulted in use of some bright colours in main stair areas, destroying the unifying and linking function to move between various destinations. The yellowish tinge you see on my photos is result of paint and not the tungsten light or underexposure.

The original white open ceiling white planks with dark sound absorbent filling behind has now become shiny red which one is happy to accept as transient response to cater the tastes of given periods.

The external walls are made of lightweight (foamed slag) concrete fairfaced board marked finish both inside and outside of insulated load bearing external walls. It is remarkable to notice that concrete on Arup’s bridge has suffered heavy staining while Dunelm House is quite free from serious staining. This may be due to some property of the slag and its mix.

The original roof was meant to be covered in Zinc for economy reason, but Royal Fine Art Commission objected and the resulting precast giant concrete tiles were used using a pink shap granite.

This was obviously a step to ensure that the visible roof was part of this cohesive massing and fitted in the townscape more successfully.

The main entrances at the highest point of site at the junction of footpath leading to Arup’s bridge is brilliant design. These entrances bring the users to the head of stairs, feeding them down like a constant ‘waterfall’.

Black & White photos from AJ 15 June 1966 and  two other B&W photos and Blue Cross Section from Architectural Review (date not visible) from John Donat’s article.

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