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Frank Gehry's Biomuseo Primps for its Debut

Panama's instant icon has taken shape—and inches toward the finish line.

By Beth Broome
February 12, 2014
Photo © Victoria Murillo/Biomuseo
The biodiversity museum, which sits along Panama City’s Amador Causeway, is visible from great distances across the bay.

After years of agonizing delays, an opening date is finally drawing near for Frank Gehry’s iconic Biomuseo in Panama City—a project that has been in the works for over a decade.

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Gehry’s first built work in Latin America, the vividly hued concrete and steel biodiversity museum sits dramatically along the Amador Causeway, former site of a U.S. Army base at the Pacific entry to the Canal. Focusing on Panama’s rich and diverse ecosystem, the 43,000-square-foot museum will function as an interpretive center and a catalyst for environmental stewardship. It is intended to serve as a “point of entry to discover Panama” as well, for both locals and the tourists it is hoped that the building will attract. “Down the line, the museum will have an economic impact,” says Pilar Arosemena de Alemán, the current president of Fundación Amador, the foundation behind the project. “And it will be a source of pride. It will show that we Panamanians can build—and can have a project—with world standards.”

In the late 1990s, Gehry, who is married to a Panamanian, Berta Isabel Aguilera, was invited to participate in a design charrette and conference focusing on the repurposing of land and buildings following the 1999 Canal transfer. Broad-brushstroke proposals for three specific sites resulted. Fueled by the enthusiastic reception of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, a group of local leaders, hoping to give Panama its own Gehry building, approached the architect to convince him to come up with a specific design for the causeway site. In 2001, the foundation was created and initial government funding was secured; in 2002, Gehry signed a letter of agreement to design the museum.
But since ground broke in 2005, construction has been on-again, off-again. The project has lived through three presidential administrations and has had trouble, in a country that lacks a strong culture of philanthropic giving, raising funds. To date, $95 million has been spent, says the museum (with just 20 percent coming from private interests) and an estimated $15 million needs to be raised for the second phase, which includes the three final galleries and a surrounding botanical garden, master-planned by landscape designer Edwina von Gal, whom Gehry brought onto the project in its early stages.

These setbacks have been further complicated by the gap between the construction standards called for by Gehry’s design and the abilities of the local workforce. Many components, such as the complex steel roof and canopies, as well as the architectural concrete, are practically uncharted territory for Panamanian work crews: a number of elements have had to be reinstalled more than once. In the end, as evidenced by the concrete, which is “pop-corning” and rough-and-ready in places, the architect has had to come to terms with the local limitations and adjust its expectations. And the effects of the tropical climate, which would slow down even the most energetic worker, cannot be underestimated. “Panama has a different expectation of construction practices and procedures,” acknowledges Gehry’s office. “This naturally leads to a slower cadence. Although the path to completion has been longer than we anticipated, we feel the project has successfully met both our client’s and our own aspirations, and we hope that it will be an exciting destination for Panamanians and visitors to the country.”

Despite the roadblocks, ever so slowly, the building has risen: a muscular concrete structure shielded by an intricate roof that is a cascade of folded steel canopies in bright reds, blues, and yellows. Five of the eight interactive galleries, master-planned by Bruce Mau Design, abut the large central open-air atrium and are now installed and receiving limited visits. Visible from great distances across the Panama Bay, the building, with its aggressive form and dazzling color scheme, is quite a sight to behold in the design-challenged landscape of commercial towers that make up Panama City. “Most people in Panama have not had an architectural experience,” notes executive architect Patrick Dillon, who has been on the job since its inception. Pointing out that this building is setting new standards here, he goes on, “This is why the details have to be worked out so they don’t distract from this experience.”

Today, as the project inches toward the finish line, the nation’s attentions are focused elsewhere: on the upcoming May presidential election, which will unfold at about the same time the museum may open. This is just one more complicating factor for the project as it enters its final weeks of being a construction site before—at long last—it breaks onto the world stage as the first major work of architecture the country has seen in generations.

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