IN 1965, an Echo photographer acquired a pioneering “wide-eye” lens, as he called it, and tried it out, photographing the construction of Dunelm House, Durham University’s student union building, on August 4. Built of raw concrete, the building is now controversial as the university has plans to demolish it while campaigners want the Government to give it listed status. It is regarded as one of the finest Brutalist buildings in the North-East – “an elegant cascade of concrete”, according to one of its supporters – and it makes a striking pair with the thrilling Kingsgate Bridge, built in 1961, beside it. Dunelm House opened on April 21, 1966, and was regarded as being “very 1966”. It cost £250,000 to build and now is said to need £15m of repairs. Here's the story of this extraordinary looking building...

“IT is the third best looking building in the city,” said a railway van driver in 1966. “You’ve got the cathedral, the castle, and then this.”

He was parked up at the top of New Elvet in Durham City where a frighteningly new building was being stacked like a pile of boxes against the steep side of the river gorge. He was clearly impressed by what he saw, as, in a city overflowing with architectural gems, he placed Dunelm House in his top three.

Others approached by The Northern Echo that day in February 1966 did not agree. They disliked the student union’s concrete grey finish. One said its forbidding straight lines made it look like a prison; another said its blocky nature made it look like a graveyard, and a third described it as a “monstrosity”.

Yet another unnamed man, who was given the complicated job description of “armature winder”, said simply: “I like it. This is 1966.”

This is now 2016, and a Government minister has decided that she doesn’t like it. Culture Secretary Karen Bradley has ignored the advice of Historic England, which thinks Dunelm House should be given a Grade II listed status, and is minded to give Durham University a Certificate of Immunity, which would allow it to demolish the building. The public have until mid-January to express their opinions.

The story of Dunelm House, and its modernist big brother, Kingsgate Bridge, begins during the Second World War when Durham had a vision of clearing the derelict, higgledy-piggledy assortment of buildings on New Elvet to create a park with a grand riverside view of the cathedral.

Such a fanciful scheme never left the drawing board, and in the 1950s, the university bought up the properties – a few slums, an old sweet factory, a little council estate – in the blighted road and cleared them away. This left a dramatic, but awkward, site, plunging 50ft to the river and in a sensitive location as, in the cathedral, it was overlooked by one of Europe’s most important buildings.

The university’s first move was to span the river, and, aiming for the top, approached architect Ove Arup, who was already working on the Sydney Opera House. Arup had been born in Newcastle to Danish parents and was keen to take on the project in a place he knew well.

The bridge was to leave the cathedral side of the peninsula at Bow Lane. In ancient times, Bow Lane had led down a difficult descent to a ford, and in the 16th Century, a low-level bridge.

But Arup came up with a high-level walkway which shot out through the treetops and up over the river – 350ft (107m) across and 66ft (20m) above the waterline.

The key to the design was the two V-shaped legs that supported the deck. They were assembled on either bank and then swung round into place.

Completed in 1961, the Kingsgate Bridge immediately won accolades for its sleek, modern look and for the thrill it gave all who walked across it.

A similarly modern solution was then sought for the New Elvet bank. Arup was the consulting engineer, but the lead architect was Richard Raine of the Architects Co-Partnership who wanted to make a virtue of the site’s frightening drop.

“The structure is basically a series of concrete boxes tucked into the hillside with walls resting on rock at the back and piles on the river front,” explained the Echo.

From the street side, it looks like some boxes which have artfully tumbled down a hill; from the waterfront, it is a tall pile, at least five boxes high – the sort of pile always found in cop shows, like The Professionals, to bring a car chase to a dramatic end.

In 1966, the Echo’s Architectural Correspondent used a different cultural reference. He said: “Amateurs of modern architecture will recognise it as an England translation of one of Le Corbusier’s greatest buildings, the Dominican monastery of La Tourette, near Lyons.”

The correspondent liked the way the different rooflines mirrored the centuries of natural growth of other buildings on the peninsula, and he loved the way each floor was stepped back into the hillside to provide a roof terrace for the next level.

“What a magnificent way to use a river frontage,” he enthused. “How one envies the Durham students their balmy summer evenings there!"

Even on a drab December day, the bar balconies still look enticing, even though modern rules have closed them because the parapets are too low to prevent plunging.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Dunelm House is its material: concrete.

Not just any old concrete, but a type of concrete popularised by 1950s French architects like Le Corbusier: “beton brut” – “raw concrete” (it is this which gives rise to the term “brutalist” architecture rather than the brutal nature of the buildings). The concrete was made on site and poured into rough-sawn timber moulds, which left a rough impression on it when it set.

Every wall, inside and out, was finished in this unfinished way; even the ashtrays in the bar and the billiard table legs were made from it.

The £250,000 Dunelm House opened to students on April 21, 1966, prompting a Marmite response.

The critics, though, largely hailed it as a triumph. Architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it as "brutalist by tradition but not brutal to the landscape ... the elements, though bold, are sensitively composed".

Professor Douglass Wise, of Newcastle University, called it “the greatest contribution modern architecture has made to the enjoyment of an English medieval city”.

As recently as 2011, Professor Chris Higgins, Durham University's vice-chancellor, said: "Kingsgate Bridge and Dunelm House are two of the finest examples of 20th Century architecture in the city.”

But now the university wants rid. The biggest problem is that concrete.

In 1966, the Echo’s Architectural Correspondent said: “The concrete is beautifully finished, clean and elegant. It looks good, and will continue to look good.”

Now it looks bad. Some of that is due to lack of maintenance, although the roof – made with pre-cast giant concrete tiles financed by a £10,000 grant from the Royal Fine Arts Commission – has long leaked.

The university says it needs £15m of repairs and as the 1960s boxes are too rigid for 21st Century uses, it should be wiped away and an international competition held to design a high quality replacement to go beside the Grade I listed Kingsgate Bridge.

But can the Kingsgate afford to lose its younger brother? Can Durham afford to lose its “third best building”? Can the North-East, littered with appalling examples of 1960s architecture, afford to lose the best of its era?

For 50 years, Dunelm House has sat successfully in its riverside setting and, in its own way, has been as unique as the cathedral over the water. But, in terms of form and function, has it now passed its best by date?

In short, is it a beaut or a brute? What do you think?