Arts and Culture
4:48 pm
Thu April 28, 2011

El Paso's Mysterious Link To The South Asian Kingdom of Bhutan

El Paso, Texas might be the last place you'd expect to find a heavy South Asian cultural influence, but the architecture at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) was actually inspired by the ancient architecture of Bhutan, a small landlocked country nestled between India and China.

"When I visited the campus of UTEP, there weren't many people who knew why the architecture looks the way it does," Lisa Napoli, a journalist and author of “Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned In Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth, told KUT News.

"I've been meeting people who were from El Paso, or who had friends from El Paso or relatives, and had no idea why UTEP looks the way it does," she said.

Napoli says, however, that many people on the campus are big advocates of the connection between UTEP and Bhutan, and the number of Bhutanese students at UTEP has increased in recent years.

The Bhutanese influence on UTEP's architecture can be attributed to Kathleen Worrell, the wife of the first dean of the school, back when it was called the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy in 1914.

Worrell read a 1914 issue of National Geographic that featured an 88-page photo essay of Bhutan, according to a history of the school on UTEP's website.

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.

One of the most noticeable differences between buildings in Bhutan and those at UTEP is that El Paso's version of Dzong architecture is much less colorful.

"The first pictures from which the UTEP buildings were designed weren't in color," Napoli said. "The architects working from those original pictures in the 1914 National Geographic didn't know what colors there were in Bhutan because it was black and white photography."

Check out a comparison of the two places in the YouTube video at the top of this post. You can read an excerpt of Lisa Napoli’s book here.