Sunday, March 18, 2012

Panama's Biodiversity Museum

Since January I have been down in southern Florida, soaking up the sunshine with the gal who is most generally wiser than I.  Had a go at deepening the tan again this afternoon on a beautiful sky-blue day.  But I’m starting to miss the Big City – all the more this week since the temperatures in Chicago have rivaled or exceeded the temperatures down here. 

It makes you look forward to summer, doesn’t it?

Summer offers so many different opportunities in Chicago, but one of our favorite outings involves climbing on the old 151 with a couple of lawn chairs and a picnic supper and heading down to the Pritzker Pavilion for a Grant Park Symphony evening.  There really is nothing like it – the Michigan Avenue streetwall just to the west, surrounded by thousands of people, under the stars and Frank Gehry’s magnificent trellis.

I know, I know, New York City has its Great Lawn.  And it’s great.  But it’s a lawn, as great as it is. 

(JWB, 2008)
In Chicago we have not just a lawn that can accommodate 7,000 people, but an unbelievable stainless steel colossus designed by one of the world’s greatest living architects, Frank Gehry.  And a pretty darned good symphony, too.  As far as I know, the Grant Park Symphony orchestra provides the largest free symphonic schedule in the country, reaching over one million people a year through its concerts and community outreach programs.

Speaking of Mr. Gehry, I had a chance to see a brand new Gehry design a month or so ago as Jill and I cruised slowly down the west end of the Panama Canal.  With shiny, silver spires of Panama City shimmering in the background, Mr. Gehry’s Bridge of Life, or Biodiversity Museum, presents a contrast, both in form and color.

Frank Gehry's Biomuseum nearing completion in Panama City (JWB, 2012)
Due to open during summer a year from now, the Biomuseum will use four million square feet and eight showrooms, split in two levels, to show the geological emergence of the Isthmus of Panama and the subsequent creation of the Caribbean as a closed sea.

The idea for the Biomuseum originated over a dozen years ago when the United States handed trusteeship for the canal to Panama.  In fact, the museum is located on what is know as the Amador Causeway, which was created during construction of the canal and which served as the grounds for two large U. S. military bases until 1999.

During the original construction of the canal waste material, especially that excavated from the Culebra Cut, was dumped in a desolate area east of Panama City known as the Balboa Dump.  As work continued, backfill was used to create a large breakwater, a project completed in 1912.  The largest of the two U. S. military bases on the Amador Causeway was Fort Amador, which was the primary infantry and support base.  Manuel Amador Guerrero was the first president of Panama.  The headquarters for the Amador Foundation, the controlling body for the Biomuseum, is located in the old Officer’s Club on the grounds of the former Army base, next to the new Gehry-designed campus.

The Biomuseum on the Amador Causeway with Panama City in the background (JWB, 2012
The Biomuseum is the first building in Latin America designed by Mr. Gehry, whose wife, Berta Isabel Aguilera, is a Panamanian.  Originally conceived as an Aquarium,  it morphed into a 60 million dollar behemoth and a dozen years after Mr. Gehry’s original plans were unveiled is still only about 70% complete.  When it is finally completed its close proximity to Panama City, Sovereignty National Park, and the cruise ports on the west end of the canal should make it a prime tourist destination.

If it ever gets finished.

If and when it is finished, the museum will consist of eight galleries that tell the historically accurate story of Panama as a bridge for life moving from one continent to another.  The display galleries are called:  Living Network, Oceans Divided, The Human Footprint, the Great Exchange, The Bridge Emerges, Panamarama, and Biodiversity Gallery.

Close to the western entrance to the Panama Canal and its port facilities, the new Biomuseum should
become a popular tourist destination.  That's the hope, anyway.  (JWB, 2012)
The Great Exchange will feature 97 sculptures of giant wildlife that cross from one continent to the other three million years ago.  The Human Footprint will show 15,000 years of culture in the Panmanian isthmus.  Oceans Divided will include two aquariums, representing the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

It should be a spectacular museum, when completed, in an extraordinary location, a location combining both beauty and history.  Maybe in ten years she who must be obeyed and I will return to Panama.  And maybe, by then, Frank Gehry’s plans will be complete.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Hi Jim,

I'm having difficulty finding any info online about the current anticipated opening date for the museum--your post is the only one I can find citing "summer 2013" as the latest forecast. Just wondering where you got the info from, so I can be sure it's accurate (working on a piece about the city). Thanks!