Panamania: A museum becomes an instant icon for a developing nation while upping the ante for design excellence.
Architects & Firms
Panama City, Panama
Years before Frank Gehry’s dazzling Biomuseo completed construction in Panama City, its memorable form—a collision of riotously colored folded metal canopies—became a hopeful emblem of the developing country’s arrival on the world stage. Ubiquitous in travel promotions and even emblazoned on the side of some of Copa Airlines’ fleet, the building was pegged to become a symbol of national pride. But as construction of the 44,000-square-foot project dragged on over a decade—while countless slapdash commercial towers sprouted up, changing the urban landscape with shocking speed—many locals have looked on with detached bemusement. “They call it the museum that never ends [que nunca termina],” a cabdriver said, laughing on a recent ride out to the building, located dramatically along the Amador Causeway at the Pacific entry to the Canal.
Now the $95 million first phase of the building is finally complete, with the opening scheduled for October 2. The Biomuseo is really an interpretive center, showcasing the isthmus’s wealth of natural resources and diverse ecosystem through eight galleries (five are open so far), planned by Bruce Mau Design. The curves and acute angles of some of these spaces, which flank a central open-air atrium, are needlessly fussy. But they also convey the design’s architectural ambitions. The galleries are each distinct: from a narrow corridor activated by a zigzagging window wall with views to the bay and the distant skyline, to an amoeboid hall, illuminated by a single swooping oculus and home to a menagerie of life-size plaster-cast species of the past and present. The centerpiece is the “Panamarama,” an immersive theater housed in an orange cube-shaped volume. Immense projections on three walls, as well as the ceiling and glass floor, depict (to the beat of a thumping soundtrack) dramatic footage of the country’s landscapes and wildlife. The Biomuseo’s second phase, scheduled for completion in the winter of 2016, will include the installation of the remaining galleries, as well as an aquarium.
The steel canopies refer to the typical metal roofs of Panamanian and former Canal Zone architecture, and their bright hues are said to be inspired by the guacamaya macaw. Intended to reflect Latin American culture, the tumult of color is a rather simplistic and garish interpretation. But there is another way of looking at it: “The architect captured very well the idiosyncrasies of the Panamanian people,” said one visitor recently. “Colorful and unruly [desordenado].” Atop the building’s robust concrete structure, the roofs form an elegantly jumbled, sculptural form. Standing alone on a spit of land, the building, festooned in its fantastical plumage, is a grand gesture. But it has many subtleties too, such as the gentle roll in the café roofline, which echoes the swoop of the Bridge of the Americas at the mouth of the canal in the distance. One of its greatest moments is its soaring, central atrium, which, like the surrounding park (a rarity here), is free to the public. Shaded by the canopies and open on its sides, in the typical fashion of buildings in the tropics, it forms a dynamic public space, cooled and animated by the breezes that cross the causeway as the fierce heat beats down above. Muted reflections of the bright colors brush the unpainted undersides of the metal roof—a subtle but stunning counterpoint to their brash outward appearance.
Pointing to significant delays, some might say that Gehry (as well as the client) should have been more sensitive to the limitations of the local workforce, which had little to no experience with architectural concrete or intricate geometries and steelwork. However, the building—the architect’s first in Latin America—has raised the standard for design and construction to a challenging height. Much of the exposed concrete was poured over and over again before being deemed acceptable. And to realize the roof geometries required a 6-millimeter tolerance, according to executive architect Patrick Dillon, of local firm Ensitu, who has been on the job since its inception. “We took on a task that nobody else had taken on before in Panama—building something of this complexity and quality,” he says.
In a country whose unbridled growth has been driven principally by commercial interests, with little regard for architectural excellence or civic investment, the Biomuseo sets an optimistic tone. With its difficult path to completion largely behind it, the building has emerged a triumph that will serve as a model for the value of design—for Panama and for the people there.
Metal Roofing/curtain wall: