Ever Wonder Why UTEP Looks Like Bhutan?
If you’re ever passing through El Paso, TX, you may be surprised to find a little piece of the Himalayas sitting right along the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s because the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP, draws inspiration from an unlikely source: the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.
How El Paso, TX Came to Look Like Bhutan
Originally known as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, UTEP was founded in 1914 during a time when Bhutan was mostly shut off from the rest of the world. That same year, National Geographic magazine published a photo essay called “Castles in the Air,” which gave most Westerners’ their first glance at the isolated kingdom. The author, British political officer John Claude White, spoke of “the grandeur of the magnificent snow peaks and the picturesque charm of the many wonderful forts.”
Kathleen Worrell, who was married to the school’s first dean, was captivated by the photos. Around the same time, much of UTEP’s original campus burned to the ground. Noting the similarities between the Franklin Mountains and the Himalayan Mountains, Worrell suggested borrowing Bhutanese architectural styles for the new campus. Thus, the first campus building to go up after the fire was modeled after a Bhutanese fortress or dzong.
An Introduction to Bhutan’s Architecture
Dzongs are known for their inward sloping walls, overhanging roofs, and high inset windows. The colors red and gold are featured prominently in the exterior decor while the interior walls are adorned with dark bands of brick and mosaic-tiled mandalas. In Bhutan, dzongs are used for religious, military and administrative purposes. They sometimes host festivals and other community events. Dzongs typically house a complex of interior courtyards, administrative offices, and dwellings for monks. In other words, it’s a perfect centerpiece for a university campus.
The government has taken careful measures to preserve traditional Bhutan architecture. The specifications for building dzongs are codified in a document called the Driglam Namzha. Most Bhutanese structures are built upon wooden frames supported by tightly packed earthen walls. Architects don’t work from plans, and no nails are used. According to a 1998 royal decree, new buildings in Bhutan should feature sloping roofs, arched windows, and multi-colored wood outsides. Nonetheless, Bhutan’s architecture is as diverse as its landscapes: Western Bhutan is home to mansions that began popping up in the 19th century while people in the south still live in thatched bamboo houses today.
A Little Bit About Bhutan
Bhutan lies in the Himalayan Mountains between Tibet and India. A network of rivers runs through its steep mountains and valleys. Despite its small size, the country is known for its biodiversity and varied landscapes. The southern plains are subtropical while the peaks of the Himalayan mountains are dangerously cold. Bhutan’s highest peak sits atop the Gangkhar Puensum. At 23,000 feet above sea level, it is one of the largest unscaled mountains on earth.
Bhutan has never been colonized, so it maintains a unique, uninterrupted cultural history. For centuries, the territory was a Buddhist theocracy under a spiritual leader called the Zhabdrung Rinpoche. After civil war broke out during the 19th century, the nation was united by the House of Wangchuck, which cultivated a relationship with the British Empire. Bhutan held its first national elections in 2008 when the Kingdom became a constitutional monarchy. The King of Bhutan, called the “Dragon King” by locals, is still technically the head of the government, but he answers to the Bhutanese National Assembly.
Compared to other South Asian nations, Bhutan has the second highest per capita income. That said, much of the country remains undeveloped. Nonetheless, standards of living have been steadily increasing since Bhutan became the first country in the world to make “gross national happiness” a priority in its constitution.
A Transcontinental Partnership
When Bhutan started allowing outsiders in 1974, a UTEP graduate became the nation’s first international artist in residence. To this day, to school continues to maintain a relationship with the country and helps organize trips for students to visit. Every other year, the university hosts “Bhutan Days,” a festival that brings Bhutanese performers and artist to meet with students, faculty and staff. A growing portion of UTEP’s student body comes from Bhutan.
From the library to the hut housing the campus ATM, Bhutanese tapestries and intricate wood carvings can be found all over campus. Buddhist prayer flags fly in front of the Centennial Museum where visitors can spin a giant prayer wheel. A 15-foot hand-painted altar stands next to the coffee bar in UTEP’s library.
Credit: UTEP Communications
The library also houses the world’s largest book, “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom,” as well as numerous Bhutanese musical instruments and other artifacts. Upon seeing photos of the university’s campus in the late 1960s, the then-queen of Bhutan remarked, “I wish our new buildings in Bhutan could be so finely built!” Indeed, University President Diana Natalicio has boasted that El Paso has the world’s only Bhutanese parking garages since Bhutan has none. Ironically, The Sun Bowl and the Don Haskins Center stand out because they are the only campus buildings that don’t look like they belong in Bhutan.