Portions of this article first appeared in UTEP's Transformations blog
Inspired by Bhutan
After a fire at the original location, the School of Mines and Metallurgy (as UTEP was then known) moved to its current location. When it came time to design the new buildings, Dean Steve Worrell’s wife, Kathleen, offered a proposal inspired by her love of travel—and her reading of the April 1914 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The issue featured a photographic essay documenting John Claude White’s journey to Bhutan titled “Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journey’s into the Unknown Bhutan.”
Mrs. Worrell believed that the landscape of the Franklin Mountains was similar to Bhutanese terrain and that the style was particularly suited for El Paso’s desert climate. White described Bhutan’s landscape in the following manner: “It is impossible to find words to express adequately the wonderful beauty and variety of scenery I met with during my journeys, the grandeur of the magnificent snow peak, and the picturesqueness and charm of the many wonderful jongs [also spelled dzongs], or forts, and other buildings I came across; but I hope my photographs may give my readers some idea of what I saw.” Descriptions like this inspired Worrell’s vision for the new school buildings. She was also attracted to the fortress-like structure and stone construction, believing that thick stone walls would withstand the strong winds and incredible summer heat of the Chihuahuan desert.
The first building to be completed in the Bhutanese architecture, Main (now Old Main), was envisioned to be similar to the fortress-like dzongs such as the Dug-Gye dzong which White describes in his commentary: “I cannot describe Dug-Gye better than Captain Turner, who visited it 120 years before; the scene does not seem to have altered in the least. ‘The approach to the only entrance is defended by three round towers, placed between the castle and the foot of the hill and connected together by a double wall, so that a safe communication between them is preserved even in times of greatest peril. Around each of these towers, near the top, a broad ledge projects, the edges of which are fortified by a mud wall…Dug-Gye-jong is a very substantial stone building with high walls.’”
The Bhutanese architectural style exemplified in Main became the dominant design of the buildings throughout UTEP’s history. Some of those design features can be seen in most of UTEP’s buildings: low hipped roofs; ornamental friezes of tile and brick below the roof lines; battered exterior walls, which increase in thickness toward the bottom; and deep-set windows. The original Main building only had two windows on the first floor a Bhutanese security measure.
The unique style of UTEP architecture has been commented on in publications such as Texas Architect, UTEP’s Nova, and The El Paso Times. Perhaps the most famous commentary came in a letter to Dale L. Walker, a former faculty member at UTEP who studied the school’s architecture and published many articles on the topic. The letter was written in 1973 by her Majesty Queen Ashi Kesang Wangchuck of Bhutan who wrote, “I cannot tell you how pleased we are to know that our Bhutanese dzongs have inspired the architecture of your beautiful new library and campus buildings- the similarity of design and architecture to our Dzongs is truly amazing. In the harmonious blending of the old with the modern, there is much to inspire us in turn in the construction of our new buildings and towns in Bhutan.” Unlike any other university campus in the United States, UTEP colors the mountainside with ancient Bhutanese architectural design, a design which has become a part of UTEP’s historical culture.
While the Bhutanese architectural influence is easily identified on UTEP’s campus, the symbolism behind the characteristic features may be less well known. Buddhism, the dominant religion in Bhutan, has influenced style and design features of Bhutanese buildings. These features found their way onto UTEP’s buildings through the architects who used John Claude White’s 1914 National Geographic article, “Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journey’s into the Unknown Bhutan” as a guide for the University’s earliest Bhutanese-styled buildings.
In his article, White described monasteries in Bhutan painted in “a dull light gray on the lower story, with a broad band of madder red above, and shingle roofs, on the top of which are gilded canopies.” Old Main and several other buildings were styled after Bhutanese monasteries with the gray-brown stucco finish and red brick band wrapping around the upper levels of the buildings. The brick line on UTEP’s buildings may be one of the most prominent aesthetic motifs at the university; in Bhutan, it denotes a religious institution. In 1967, Desmond Dong, a Bhutanese architectural specialist, wrote, “The ornamental band [on UTEP’s buildings] distinguishes religious buildings in Tibet and Bhutan as monasteries, chapels, and such…I wonder if the students know how close they are to monastery.”
Imbedded in many of the brick bands are mosaic designs also known as mandalas (MAHN-da-lah), which is Sanskrit for “circle.” In Buddhism, the mandala is a form of sacred art used most often to evoke deities. Each mandala is composed of an outer circle encircling an eight-pointed shape with a circle or square in the center of the design, which followers believe to hold a deity. The eight-pointed design has four points usually pointing in the four compass directions. The other four points, called doors or gates, are usually embellished with decorative items and symbolize the collectivity of the Four Boundless Thoughts: love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. For Buddhist monks, the mandala creates a meditative space within which they believe they are able to achieve a level of consciousness by which they may attain their worldly and spiritual goals. Mandalas adorn many of UTEP’s buildings using the colors yellow, white, red, green, and blue representing effort, faith, memory, meditative stabilization, and wisdom.
On the Psychology Building, a different symbol decorates the façade. Three white circles, resembling a target, represent the wheels of life in Buddhism. The circles each have an individual meaning but combined they represent the evolution of changes that a human goes through in life. The center circle is representative of the root of man’s evils, the second is symbolic of stages humans pass through such as, birth, religious life, sickness and death; the third outer ring is emblematic of the life of Buddha.
The grounds surrounding the Centennial Museum contain three more examples of Buddhist influence. At the entrance to the museum, there sit two large white pillar-like sculptures of prayer wheels built in 1936. In White’s article on Bhutan, he described a water driven prayer wheel as a “hollow cylinder filled with written or printed prayers and fixed to a perpendicular shaft of wood, to the lower end of which horizontal flappers are attached against which water from a chute; the end is shod with iron and revolves in an iron socket driven by the force of the stream. With each revolution the prayers are believed to be prayed for the benefit of the builder of that particular wheel and count as much to his credit.” Turning the wheel symbolizes “turning the doctrine,” one of Buddha’s first teachings which suggest that Buddhist teachings go round and round, never stopping. The smaller hand-held prayer wheel usually bears a printed mantra and the holder rotates the wheel clockwise in order to gain enlightenment. The Chihuahuan Desert Garden features an actual prayer wheel, a gift from the people of Bhutan in 2003. The donated prayer wheel is similar to the wheels used at the entrances of Buddhist monasteries and was constructed in Bhutan. The Centennial Museum welcomes onlookers to turn “gently” the wheel– it is a functioning wheel.
On the hillside south of the Centennial Museum are several prayer flags. Traditionally, the Bhutanese used them to promote peace, compassion, strength, or wisdom, and, typically, have a mantra or prayer printed on them. In Buddhism, the placement of a prayer flag is accompanied by a religious ceremony. The Centennial Museum periodically change UTEP’s flags, but not until they have been well worn. It is the Buddhist belief that the fraying and wear on the flags is a sign that the prayers are being listened to. The flags are purchased by the museum from a prayer flag retailer.
The red brick stripes, mandalas, prayer wheels, and prayer flags are reminders of the influence of Buddhism on the Bhutanese architecture and design of UTEP. It is unknown if the original architects and designers of the oldest buildings on campus were aware of the deeply engrained Buddhist influence on the illustrative designs from the photographs in the National Geographic Magazine they were emulating. What scholars understand is that the architects reproduced the designs throughout UTEP’s campus from 1917 to the present, and with that replication, UTEP has passed along symbolic designs of peace and unity.
- Ashley Swarthout
Trost & Trost
- Main, 1917 (now Old Main)
- Chemistry Building, 1917 (now Quinn Hall)
- Power House, 1917 (now Prospect Hall)
- "Old" Dormitory, 1917 (now Graham Hall)
- "New" Dormitory, 1921 (now Vowell Hall)
After his death, the firm also oversaw two additional buildings.
Sources: Bhutanese Style Architecture Collection, UTEP Library Special Collections El Paso Times (February 4, 1973) National Geographic Magazine (April 1914) Nova (Vol. 17, No. 2, March 1982); “Prayer Wheel” handout, Centennial Museum A Circle of Peace, Cultural Center in El Paso; Bhutan on the Border, University of Texas at El Paso (2012)
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