By Ulf Meyer
The Biomuseo by Frank Gehry is located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, on the Amador Causeway. The purpose of the museum is to change the way we see, understand and preserve our environment.
The Isthmus of Panama is a narrow piece of land between the Carribean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. This is where North- and South-America meet – literally. It is also where two tectonic plates collided, making it possible for land-based animals to move back and forth between two continents. In 1914, the four million years old landscape of the isthmus was intersected by the Panama Canal. Panama features an amazing biodiversity and has one of the highest concentrations of species. The isthmus has more species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants than the United States and Canada combined, experts believe.
The story of this Isthmus will now be told in a new and architecturally spectacular museum, called the ‘Biomuseo’. Situated on the Eastern side of Southern entrance to the canal, the museum sits on the Amador Causeway in Panama City, on a former U.S. Army base. It is the first building in Latin America designed by LA-based Gehry Partners. The Biomuseo was commissioned by the Amador Foundation and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute. The actual exhibition design was created by Bruce Mau from Canada to produce sensory impacts. Gehry’s latest landmark is supposed to spread to the world Panama’s natural heritage and act as a tourist attraction for half a million visitors per year.
The site of the new museum provides panoramic views of the Pacific with cargo ships entering the canal and across the water towards Panama City. The Biomuseo has eight galleries on two levels. Two 10-meter high aquariums show life in the Pacific and the Caribbean Sea. There also is a temporary gallery, shop and café, while outdoor exhibits can be displayed in a botanical garden.
The work of Gehry, known as ‘the apostle of corrugated metal siding’, often resembles that of a sculptor. His best-known works such as the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the ‘Dancing House’ in Prague, the Vitra Design Museum in Germany or a recent skyscraper in New York all show his signature style. But Gehry’s claim to fame is his Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (1997), which rejuvenated the city and placed it on the world map as an architectural destination. Panama City dreams of repeating this ‘Bilbao effect’. The exact relationship between design and the economic effect remains vague however, and there have been many attempts to replicate this effect through large, eye-catching buildings of which most have failed. Unlike the titanium-clad museum in Spain, Gehry wanted the boisterous and curvaceous Biomuseo in Panama to “reference local culture in its bright colours”. Gehry’s fragmented and asymmetrical design comprises undulating roof panels in a wild “collage of forms which reflects the tropical environment”, according to Gehry. The massive concrete structure is shielded by a roof cascade in bright red, blue and yellow. The roof is made of separate, folded metal pieces designed to resemble fabric swaying in the wind.
The Biomuseo has come a long way. The initiative started in 1999, when Gehry was invited to participate in a design charrette, as the Panama Canal was transferred from American hands to the Panamanians. Five years later it was announced that Gehry would donate his design, not least because of his Panamanian wife, Berta Isabel Aguilera. Construction began in the same year but inauguration had to be postponed due to financial and technical issues. The project has lived through three presidential administrations in the meantime. When the Biomuseo opens its doors this year, it will be almost ten years after construction began.
Gehry conceived his museum like a piece of “California funk art” from the 1960s, in which “form does not follow function”. His buildings resemble juxtaposed spaces and materials, appearing unfinished or crude. Because the structure is highly complex, it required techniques that had never before been employed in Panama – many steel and concrete details had to be built more than once. Critics argue that Gehry’s designs do not seem to belong to their surroundings and are designed without accounting for the local climate.
Visible from great distances across Panama Bay, the building, with its aggressive forms, already serves as a permanent eye-catcher. Funding for the 95 million US-dollar project was received from over 100 local companies and the government. The Panama Tourism Authority, which also helped finance the museum, is even hoping for an “instant icon”. Time will tell how great the economic impact will really be.
View sketches and drawings in this earlier arcspace feature