We’re visiting Frank Gehry’s BIOMUSEO in Panama

20 May

Earlier this month, Panama’s highly-anticipated Biomuseo project completed Phase One. Jeff Campagna goes on a hard-hat tour of the construction site.


For isolationists and zombie-apocalypse fanboys, the future of architecture may mean buildings will resemble designer-fortresses, like The Safe House by Polish Architectural firm KWK Promes. Impenetrable blocks of concrete plug up the windows, steel shutters come slamming down over the glass front door and a drawbridge entrance is hoisted up — and all this with the push of a single button.

To conservationists and green-libertarians, structures yet to come may take engineering cues from nature, like the Green School complex in Bali, Indonesia. Bamboo chalkboards, compost toilets, cotton tents deployed to keep classrooms cool and water-vortexes that produce 8,000 watts of electricity, day and night, help to keep the complex off the grid.

Now, thanks to Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry, there is a new way of looking at the future of building design. Durable, industrial-strength engineering without the apocalyptic nuances of a concrete stronghold. Low-footprint construction that’s considerate of the surrounding eco-system without asking visitors to politely turn their shit into plant food. Originally sketched out by Gehry as a schoolhouse scribble in 2002, Panama’s new biodiversity museum is on track to becoming one of Latin America’s most sophisticated structures.


Photo: Kara Patrick

Fifteen million years ago, chains of volcanoes dotted the Central American Seaway where the Pacific and Atlantic waters mingled. About twelve million years later, the isthmus of Panama rose from the deep. The flow of water between the two oceans was severed by the new land bridge, creating the Gulf Stream. The Atlantic grew saltier. And ancestors of racoons, dogs, horses, llamas, porcupines and cats used the new link as a means of migration from one continent to the other.

Some scientists claim this tectonic event was one of the most important geologic happenings in the last 60 million years. Gehry agrees. The Pritzker Prize-winning architect made this transformation the cornerstone of his hundred-million dollar design.


Photo: Aaron Sosa

Passing over the Bridge of the Americas into Panama City, it’s impossible to miss Gehry’s jagged technicolor beast lazing on the banks of the Amador Causeway, at the mouth of the canal: a crumpled-up candy wrapper tossed away by gods.

Shallow pools of rainwater against the sides of the structure’s exposed concrete foundations give the casual bystander the impression that the building is emerging from the water right before their eyes.

In fact, the entire structure, from peak to footing, reflects the culture, the history, the geology and the biodiversity of its home country.

The steel roof panels that jut out harshly in every direction represent the angular formations of a rocky landmass as it ascends from the sea. The kaleidoscopic facades underscore the country’s tropical biodiversity. The two elements, steel and colour, come together to reflect the thousands of painted shipping containers that pass by the museum daily on the backs of ocean liners passing through the canal.

The roof is as sophisticated as it is symbolic. The many tangled panels work together to divert harsh tropical winds and, much like leaves in a dense jungle canopy, to transport rainwater to rocky filtration beds, to be stored for septic use. The panels also function as instruments for climate control, reflecting the sun’s heat so effectively that the difference in temperature between the the surface of a panel and its underside can vary by as much as 100 degrees. The museum has air conditioning, but hardly uses it.


Photo: Victoria Murillo

But the most future-facing detail of the structure is not architectural at all.

Fifteen years ago, the entire causeway was part of the American Canal Zone; it was against the law for Panamanians to enter the area. One of Gehry’s original stipulations when he took on this job was for a large public outdoor space to snake around and throughout the museum grounds, completely open and free for everyone – including skateboarders and buskers.

Gehry’s Biomuseo realises a conceptual symmetry between man and nature. It will be open to the public sometime in 2014 and completely finished by 2015. A beautiful equilibrium is forming: futurism without the doom and gloom, environmentalism without the nuts and berries.

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