Prominently squatting near the head of a long bridge connecting an archipelago of four small islands to the mainland, Panama City's new Biomuseo looks from a distance like an abstract turtle painted in bright colors. As you draw nearer to the building, the fragmentation of the design becomes clearer, and the hand of Los Angeles' most famous architect comes into the picture. This is a Frank Gehry building, no doubt.
Its fruition has taken 15 years, culminating in a soft opening on July 11. The architect's first project in Latin America has not been built easily, and the bureaucratic twists and turns navigated along the way are captured metaphorically (if not intentionally) by the Biomuseo's convoluted shape. Inside are exhibitions highlighting how the birth of the Panamanian isthmus connected the Americas and changed the entire planet's biodiversity.
On a drizzly day in June, L.A. Weekly toured the construction site with Biomuseo communications director Margot Lopez, who explained over the racket of hammers and drills that the site used to be part of the U.S. Canal Zone — it's right at the mouth of the channel. "The fact we're turning a military base into a biodiversity museum means a lot for us," she says.
Some of Gehry's critics have accused him of being a victim of his own success, no longer allowed or willing to innovate, and from the outside the Biomuseo indeed looks like the architect imitating himself. The building's overlapping, asymmetrical panels could be the offspring of L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall and Seattle's Experience Music Project. But once you step underneath the dome, the site-specific nature of the design is a sight.
The center of the building is open to the elements, and Panamanian visitors often ask Lopez when the glass is going to be installed. "Tropical architecture is very open and this is what Frank has designed," she says, "but we have gotten so used to the air conditioning down here that we are not used to that openness anymore."
Each roof panel's colored top, which faces upward to the sky at an odd angle, reflects onto the gray underside of its neighbor, creating soft hues of green, yellow, blue and red on the fragmented ceiling. These colors shift and change as the sun moves across the sky.
Before you enter the indoor exhibitions situated around the atrium, your eyes jerk through the building and out over the water, the shore punctuated with palms standing tall, like upside-down exclamation marks. Later, after you have learned about the effects of humans on the region's biodiversity (hint: not good), your eyes jerk through the building again, but this time the skyline of Panama City towers in the distance. Nature comes first, humans second.
The process that gave Panama this building began four presidential administrations ago, when Gehry (whose wife is Panamanian) took part in a conference to plan what to do with the lands and buildings ceded by the United States following the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999. Initial public funding was secured in 2001. Gehry signed on officially in 2002. Ground was broken in 2005. And that's when the hare became a tortoise.
"Every time an administration changed, the whole funding for the project was frozen," says Lopez, who has worked for the Biomuseo six years. "And every time you have to come back and start again."
Bureaucracy was not the only issue. Panama's suffocating heat makes any construction process slower than North Americans might expect, and Gehry's sweeping designs, known for confounding even the most skilled contractors, were something altogether new to local workers. "You had a learning curve, which was huge," Lopez says. "Even though Frank adapted to the construction methods here, what we never had never dealt with before was the geometry."
Once workers did learn the new techniques, which included scaling the sloped roof with mountain-climbing equipment, other construction companies often came and poached them. "So we had to keep training and training and training and training," she says. "This was like university for the workers in Panama, because they became so much better after working here."
Anand Devarajan, the architect at Gehry Partners overseeing the project, says, "Although it's taken longer than we would like, with many more challenges than expected, the project still embodies the ideals we initially envisioned."
The first tours of schoolchildren should begin arriving in August. The intricacies of the architecture might be lost on those kids, but the exhibitions inside, crafted by Bruce Mau Design (whose founder collaborated with architect Rem Koolhaas on the well-known architecture book S, M, L, XL), should be sure to grab their attention.
The first gallery features placards and screens with information — lots of information — about biodiversity and extinction. A stock market–like ticker displays the current number of humans in the world, and the figure keeps rising as you read about other long-gone species.
Such a surfeit of information gives way to quiet blackness in the second gallery, dubbed the Panamarama, whose tranquility is pierced by a video projected on the floor, ceiling and three walls. The screens on the walls are at odd angles, complementing the outside design, and images and audio of Panama's natural wonders fill the space.
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Up next is a gallery devoted to geological transformation, where you learn Panama did not exist at all 45 million years ago. The two oceans were connected, with Central America narrowing down to nothingness before South America ballooned out again. The subsequent closing of the gap had profound effects on global temperatures and biodiversity, creating the currents and winds that give Boston and Barcelona such different climates even though they share roughly the same latitude. The volcanic creation of an isthmus connecting North and South America also had huge effects on animal migration, as seen in the fourth gallery, and on eventual human migration as well, outlined in the fifth gallery.
"It's a perfect example of how something so tiny can change the world so much," Lopez says.
The Biomuseo's administrators are still seeking funding for the final three galleries, which will include a large aquarium showcasing marine biodiversity; they didn't want to wait to open the museum's doors. Panama is young but it was not created in a day. No reason to expect its prized museum would be either.
"Because it's a Gehry project, the standards are higher," Lopez says. "That is a gift to Panama to actually show you can do something that is First World."