Nestled in the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert in far west Texas, at the heart of the U.S.-Mexico border, the campus of The University of Texas at El Paso evokes the image of an ancient and mysterious Himalayan kingdom.
Indeed, the university’s architecture has been shaped by just such a place: Bhutan, the last of the three Forbidden Kingdoms hidden deep in the Himalayas, between the great Tibetan plateau and the plains of India.
UTEP was founded in 1914 as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, and the inspiration for its architecture is credited to Kathleen Worrell, wife of the School's first dean, who was fascinated with an 88-page photo-essay on Bhutan that appeared in the April 1914 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The article, titled "Castles in the Air," recounted the travels across Bhutan of British political officer and engineer John Claude White. Accompanying the article were 74 of White's photographs—among the first ever published of the ancient and isolated kingdom.
Persuaded by his wife that Bhutanese "dzongs" would be a good fit for his mining school's setting in the foothills of El Paso's Franklin Mountains, Dean Worrell had the first campus building, Old Main, constructed in this style in 1917.
Since then, nearly all UTEP buildings have followed this theme, creating an unusual degree of architectural coherence on a U.S. university campus—offering to students, faculty, staff and visitors the beauty and serenity of its Bhutanese origins.
Drawing on these origins, UTEP's architecture features massive sloping walls, high inset windows and overhanging roofs. Dark bands of brick with mosaic-tiled mandalas—symbols of unity and wholeness—adorn building walls.
Inspired by its architecture, UTEP has greatly strengthened ties to Bhutan during the past two decades through initiatives that foster understanding and appreciation of its people, culture and traditions.
UTEP is home to many beautiful Bhutanese cultural artifacts, including tapestries and intricate wood carvings. The university sponsors bi-annual "Bhutan Days," which bring performers and artisans from Bhutan to the campus to interact with UTEP students, faculty and staff, and members of surrounding communities.
UTEP is also proud to enroll a growing number of Bhutanese students who are completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in such areas as geophysics, finance, engineering, accounting and education.
UTEP's special relationship with Bhutan has become not only part of our architectural history and narrative. It is deeply embedded within the hearts of all who learn, teach and visit here.