Think Panama, and certainly the canal comes to mind. But soaring modern architecture should, too. There’s the new Trump Tower that seems vaguely similar to the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, a building that takes inspiration from a sail.
Then there is the “screw,” the Revolution Tower that some have dubbed the “twist-scraper” because it is a 52-story structure coiling upward like a corkscrew.
Panama now has 11 buildings that are 70 stories or taller, and dozens just slightly smaller. Comparisons to Dubai and Singapore are not out of line.
But in my mind, after five days in the city, the most transformative piece of work is far more diminutive in scale. And its construction marks the arrival of Frank Gehry to Latin America. Gehry, of course, is the Pritzker Prize-winning architect of such iconic buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and the Rasin building in Prague. He’s been called the most influential architect of our times.
His buildings lean, twist, contort and crumple. They are full of extraordinary color.
And what he has built in Panama is unforgettable. It is called the Biodiversity Museum and it is on the Amador Causeway that greets every ship and cruise line that passes through the canal. The building is an explosion of crimson, tangerine, deep yellow, avocado, navy blue and aluminum. The roof trusses hold up a creased aluminum panels that look like folded sheets.
Like it or hate it, and Panamanians fall on both sides, I believe it will come to represent the city. The museum will house seven major exhibits that will tell visitors how the Panama isthmus was formed and why it has made Panama such a biodiversity hotspot as a bridge between two continents.
The museum is not huge. It should open later this year although the inauguration already has been postponed more than a year. But already the talk is that it will become a major tourist destination in itself. The KPMG consulting firm says the museum may draw 500,000 a year, nearly as many as come to see the Miraflores Locks along the canal.
The museum won’t be just a class act on the outside. Helping design the exhibits is the Smithsonian Institute, the largest scientific museum network in the world and one that has a long presence in Panama.
So who convinced Gehry to design such a project for Panama? Panama-born Berta Aguilera had something to do with it. She’s Gehry’s second wife.