Texas Tech University at El Paso College of Architecture junior Lupita Chao Zambrano was recently named the grand-prize winner of Sundt Construction’s “Art of Building: A Design Competition.” For her winning piece, Lupita earned a $5,000 scholarship to help with her spring tuition. Her hanging sculpture titled “Cultural Symbiosis” depicts El Paso’s iconic Franklin Mountains and Scenic Drive, next to the neighboring Sierra de Juárez mountains. The piece was made using wire and volcanic rocks, and it will be mounted to a steel beam in Sundt’s downtown El Paso office. Following her big win, Lupita took some time to share about her inspiration and her plans for the future.
What made you decide to study architecture?
It’s funny, actually. I was always an artsy kid, but I wanted to play professional basketball. I played competitively growing up in Juárez and El Paso, and at Cochise College on a full-ride scholarship while I got my associate’s. Eventually, I realized I needed a better plan. I looked at graphic design, but it didn’t seem to match my full potential. My cousin told me how architecture teaches you a bit of everything, that it’s art but more practical. When I realized there was an architecture program in El Paso, it was a perfect fit because I could study what I wanted and be with my family.
Once you graduate from Texas Tech, what are your goals?
My goal is to attend the California College of the Arts and earn a Master of Architecture degree. From there, I’d like to intern and eventually work for SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) in Chicago. Their work is amazing, and SOM is my dream firm. Once I gain some experience, I’d like to return to my hometown and give back. Being from a humble family, I’d want to use my skills to help the economic and social growth of El Paso.
Where did you get your inspiration for this piece?
First of all, the other competitors’ pieces were awesome—they did a great job. For mine, I figured it can’t be too abstract, but it can’t be too functional; sculpture has to have balance. The piece is based on the symbiosis between El Paso and Juárez, how they depend on each other. Every day, people cross over to either side to work, to shop, to see family. And if you live here, you know the area by its mountains. Like each person, every rock is different, but together they build up a mountain. I also think it’s significant that these rocks were unwanted. You could say I “recycled” them. But like people, they’re all diverse, but they make up one community. Altogether, the border has its own knowledge, traditions, history, its own subculture really, so I see these two cities as one.
What was your reaction when you found out you won?
I was so happy! I was smiling so big I looked like the Joker, and my classmates probably thought something was wrong with me. I ran downstairs and called my mom, but she couldn’t understand me because I was talking so fast. It’s like, I know what it’s like to win, but this felt so much deeper. I also knew I’d have to take out another loan to pay for my tuition this year, and I didn’t want my mom to worry. The prize money will help pay for my next semester, and it gives me time to apply for further scholarships.
How was it interacting with the people at Sundt?
I’d never been in this kind of competition, but everyone was so nice and helpful—Joe, Rudy, Angie, Mike, and everyone else I met. They even lent me a scaffold and helped me transport the piece from my house. It weighs like 300 pounds!
What would you say to younger students, especially girls, considering architecture or the AEC fields in general?
If you have an opportunity, go for it. Don’t worry about how it could go wrong. You never know—you might win, or you might lose. But you’ll learn along the way. Seriously, though. Take any opportunity life gives you. Don’t be afraid to talk, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be brave. That’s really it. Just be brave.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.