Frank Gehry's First Latin American Project to Debut in Panama

Frank Gehry’s first Latin American project, Panama’s Biomuseo (Museum of Biodiversity) will host its grand opening on October 2, 2014. Gehry himself can’t attend the ceremony due to a schedule conflict, but the 44,132-square-foot building is charged with his presence.

The Smithsonian-affiliated museum is the result of a collaboration between the non-profit Amador Foundation, established by private citizens of Panama to raise awareness of the country’s natural and cultural history, and the government of Panama, which contributed the site for the project.

Its permanent exhibition highlights the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the world’s biodiversity. Gehry focused on making the building’s architecture reflective of its contents. In other words, an 8 Spruce Street style skyscraper wouldn’t do; he adapted his design to fit the cause by complementing the site’s natural surroundings.

The vibrantly colored building boasts views of the Bay of Panama to the north and the Panama Canal to the south. Gehry conceived the museum to house a sequence of permanent exhibitions by Bruce Mau Design, but proper usage of outdoor space was also a priority to him. A public outdoor atrium, which is covered by an assemblage of metal canopies in different shapes and strong colors: blue, red, yellow, green, is the museum’s heart. The canopies reflect local Panamanian tin roofs, while offering protection from the area’s frequent wind-driven rains. The $100 million project is reminiscent of Gehry’s Bilboa Guggenheim Museum design with its bold use of free-flowing shapes, but it marks a departure from the architect’s tendency toward silver-colored metallic facades.

In addition to Gehry’s atrium, the Biomuseo utilizes outdoor space with its 6-acre Biodiversity Park, which the architect also had a hand in designing. Full of exotic plant varieties, shady refuges, and observation areas, the park is an open-air extension of the museum itself.

Frank Gehry stated: “This has been a very personal project for me. I feel close ties to the people of Panama, and I believe strongly that we should all be trying to conserve biodiversity, which is threatened everywhere. I hope that the design by our team at Gehry Partners, and by my friend and colleague Bruce Mau, will make a real contribution toward the success of the important work of the Biomuseo.”

Due to funding issues over the span of four presidential administrations, construction has been on and off since 2005, when shovel first hit ground. Government changes led to multiple funding freezes, and the region’s blistering heat didn’t make construction any quicker. In fact, this official opening–the soft opening was in June–is almost three years overdue. Although the mastermind himself can’t be there on October 2, he and his Panamanian wife will undoubtedly be celebrating, wherever they may be in the world.

Rachel Hennessey