with Magnusson Klemencic Associates
and Don C. Gilmore & Associates
Panama City’s new biodiversity museum, the Biomuseo: Bridge of Life, seems destined to become a landmark worthy of Frank Gehry’s outsized reputation. Certainly, it bears Gehry’s brand in that it defies structural definition. The venture is Gehry’s first in Latin America, and the work in progress—a rambling collage of color and form at the tip of the Causeway of Amador—focuses on Panama’s rich natural history, specifically the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land connecting North and South America and separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
“For every project, we delve deeply into the local culture in order to find inspiring and innovative ways to respond to the place,” explained Anand Devarajan, a partner at Gehry Partners. He added that Gehry has a strong tie to Panama, as the birthplace of his wife Berta.
Gehry Partners’ ensemble of consultants included structural engineering firms Magnusson Klemencic Associates and O.M. Ramirez Y Asociados, and mechanical engineers Don C. Gilmore & Associates and J.E. Kiamco Y Asociados. Working with executive architect Patrick Dillon of Ensitu, local contractor Ingeneria R-M, and Permasteelisa Group, which designed the facade and metal roof systems, the team developed enclosure systems that evolved into a combination of painted plaster exterior walls and painted aluminum panels for the canopy roofs.
“Because Panamanian culture and the local landscape have a rich use of color, we wanted the museum to embody that character,” said Devarajan. “Although the geometry is unique, the use of a plaster finish over a concrete substrate is a typical exterior finish one would expect in Panama,” he noted. But the use of a rain screen system—painted aluminum panels attached to a stainless steel deck and mounted to the structural steel frame—is a relatively new technique here, he said. “We saw it as an evolution of the corrugated steel deck over a roof truss that one would see in many of the shed-like structures throughout Panama City.”
The largest challenge, added Devarajan, was conveying the essence of Panama and its biodiversity through the architectural expression and exhibit design. Toward this goal, Gehry Partners reconnected with longtime collaborator Bruce Mau Design. The Toronto-based firm helped determine the narrative and form for the eight galleries, each with its own architectural identity, responding to the internal exhibit contents as well as space program requirements. The central atrium, which the architects envisioned as a dramatic civic space, is open to the air and accessible. The shapes of the canopy roofs were designed to protect the atrium from wind-driven rain, while allowing the overlaps between the roofs to ventilate the space via cross breezes.
Devarajan says that although the geometry is irregular, the objective was to make the systems and assemblies as conventional and straightforward as possible. “We wanted to create a visual continuity between the interior roof surface and the underside of exterior overhangs using structural metal deck to blur the separation between the inside and outside of the museum,” he said.
Museum director Margot López added that: “One of the things the architecture does is take its cues from nature, replicating in abstract form what already is around us. It fits into our reality—even though Gehry’s mark is everywhere.
“As you walk through it, the play of light and shadow reminds me of the local vernacular, places where you feel the elements [wind, rain, sun] in a special way,” she said. “You lose a lot of that in some of our more recent buildings downtown.”
The structure is a few blocks from the main cruise port in Panama and minutes away from Sovereign National Park, a lush rainforest immediately adjacent to Panama City. It overlooks the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, offering, as a side attraction, a panoramic view of the ocean and the capital city.
“I think the most interesting thing about the Biomuseo is that conversation between the architecture and the story it tells through the main exhibit,” said López. “The structure and the story become one. The interesting thing is how Gehry manages to do this without trying to ‘illustrate’ the story. It is the building that helps you understand how grandiose that story is. You are learning about Panama’s geological origins, and the building is taking you along for the ride.”
The museum is slated to open in mid-2013.