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c o m m u n i t i e s c a m p u s

UTEP’s Bhutanese Campus Goes Modern b y E d S o l t e r o , AIA

The monumental architecture of the University of Texas at El Paso, featuring creamcolored, battered walls and red clay tile roofs with sweeping overhangs, is unique yet foreign to its surrounding environs. While there have been a few instances where some design interventions on the campus have radically departed from the adopted Bhutanese-style of architecture, most of these have been reconfigured with varying degrees of success. As the institution continues to transform itself – not only in terms of the burgeoning student population but also in its ardent pursuit of tier-one status – its built environment is poised to follow suit. UTEP officials and the UT System Board of Regents ardently embrace this unique architectural style and rightfully so—it gives the campus a cohesiveness despite its complex terrain. The classic quadrangle planning common to a majority of American campuses would have proved impractical in this type of setting. As campus planning officials embark on the newest wave of construction, they have endeavored to renew their understanding of the nomenclature that comprises the architectural character of the buildings of Bhutan rather than simply adopting the mundane approach of applied decorative elements devoid of any meaning common in years past. In fact, a concerted effort is now underway to discover the names of particular elements and their reason for being. This has been facilitated by a new Web site hosted by the Bhutanese Department of Urban Development and Engineering Services ( As this new process begins to evolve, some of the zeal will be concentrated on imbibing a modern idiom into the structures as opposed to the iterative duplication of Bhutanese buildings.


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Originally envisioned as a mining school nestled amongst the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert, the small outpost of structures has mushroomed into a diverse educational village that evokes the image of the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. The school opened in 1914, as the Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy, on land that is now part of the Fort Bliss military complex. However, that campus was completely obliterated by fire on Oct. 16, 1916. Five prominent El Pasoans donated 23 acres of land on a mesa surrounded by mountainous terrain and the school was moved to its present location in 1917. Preference for adoption of a Southwestern style of architecture was certainly contemplated for the new campus. It was Kathleen Worrell, wife of the school’s first dean Stephen H. Worrell, who persuaded him otherwise. Captivated by a series of sepia-toned images on the architecture of the Kingdom of Bhutan she saw in an April 1914 issue of National Geographic, she was likewise intrigued by the unique similarity of El Paso’s landscape to that of Bhutan. Although the style of the architecture was adopted for no reason other than the similarity in terrain, it was embraced by all and prominent architect Henry Trost was commissioned to design the first building on campus in 1917, Old Main. Other early architects who worked on campus commissions were quite disciplined in their reinterpretation of building massing and decorative elements. (The photo at the top left shows some of those early buildings not long after completion.) Nevertheless, they mostly concentrated on applied decoration and a use of materials that would withstand the arid Southwest climate rather than the reason for the placement of these elements.

For the most part, the architecture of Bhutan embodies either a defensive role or a monastic one in early society. The distinctive type of fortress architecture is embodied in their dzongs, defensive fortifications typically constructed in strategic and difficult to reach mountainous locations or at the confluence of rivers. Dzongs served as the religious, military, administrative, and social centers of their district. They are characterized by high inward sloping walls of stone with few or no windows in the lower sections of such walls. Use of a red ochre stripe, called a kemar, surrounding the top of the building directly under the eaves of the roof signified a monastery. These are often decorated with mandalas, decorative geometric medallions used as a basis for meditation. The use of Chinese-style flared roofs was prevalent. UTEP’s Office of Planning and Construction has charged architects currently working on new commissions with the placement of design elements in their proper context yet tinted with a modern inflection. For example, the new 132,000-sf, $60-million College of Health Science/School of Nursing (COHS/SON), under the direction of the Page Southerland Page design team, incorporates a modernized version of a nimchong rabsel, or sunroom. Its proper placement on the building, oriented east, will effectively block the morning sun. It also provides a level of porosity on the ground level, yet allows occupants to enjoy the morning light within the entry courtyard. The design team has aptly handled the steep site for the new building by creating a two-level courtyard in order to follow the existing ground relief. These outdoor spaces – called gom (upper courtyard) and wom (lower courtyard) – are highly utilized in Bhutan. Furthermore, design

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Texas Architect Jan/ Feb 2009: Campus Communities  

Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...

Texas Architect Jan/ Feb 2009: Campus Communities  

Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...