Frank Gehry’s BioMuseo to turn Panama outside-in

Frank Gehry’s BioMuseo to turn Panama outside-in

The starchitect’s eagerly anticipated project is expected to draw hundreds of thousands to Panama City each year
BioMuseo model
Early renderings of Frank Gehry's Biomuseo display the famed architect's signature wild style.

“The land we’re standing on didn’t exist 3 million years ago,” says tour guide Margot López as a small group gathers for a hard-hat preview of Panama City’s newest attraction. “Where we are was once just one big ocean.”

The communications coordinator for the highly anticipated BioMuseo, set to open in Panama City in 2013, López is referring to the fact that there was once nothing but water between North and South America, until a shifting of tectonic plates created the isthmus of Panama.

The landmass that now divides the Atlantic and Pacific oceans changed not only the Americas -- including a significant divergence of animal life between the two continents -- it affected weather patterns, ocean currents and other environmental factors around the planet.

This fascinating natural history, and the way it established Panama as one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, is the subject of the new Museo de la Biodiversidad, or BioMuseo, currently under construction along Panama City’s popular Amador Causeway.

Museum from a master

The Panamarama gallery is intended to make visitors feel they're actually in the jungle, rather than just looking at it.To house a monument to such a transformative event, museum officials turned to Frank Gehry, the architect famed for such landmarks as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

His design did not disappoint.

“An eclectic and deliberately iconic structure, one that collapses shape and color with the same caprice as a wide-eyed child in art class,” one architecture critic called the project, which is Gehry’s first in Latin America, despite the fact his wife is Panamanian.

Even several months away from completion, the hulk of vivid red, orange, green, blue and yellow angles and forms make it easy to identify the structure as part of Gehry’s signature style.

The construction can be spotted by everyone from cruise ship passengers on their way to the Panama Canal to locals making daily commutes across the Bridge of the Americas.

Seeing in a new way

For the exhibits themselves, the museum worked with Toronto-based industrial designer Bruce Mau, along with scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Panama.

The result, according to López, will be “different from your everyday natural history museum.”

She says the institution that she describes as part natural science museum, part art museum will “help visitors learn to see things in a different light.”

As visitors walk through the museum -- Gehry designed the pathway in a loop -- they’ll visit eight galleries, each incorporating interactive dioramas aimed at educating through actual experiences, rather than more traditional static presentations.

In the gallery titled Panamarama, for example, visitors step into a three-level projection space and are surrounded on all sides -- ceiling to sides to floor -- by 14 different screens displaying video of scenes intended to make visitors feel they’re actually deep in the Panamanian rainforest rather than just looking at it.

It’s sort of like being inside an IMAX movie.

Gehry himself worked on the huge sculpture that will dominate the glass-walled Living Web gallery. The massive piece represents the native strangler fig tree, and explores how some 30 different species depend on the tree for survival.

The gallery further examines the interdependence between plants, animals and organisms that co-exist in the lush jungles of Panama.

Long road to opening day

Construction on the state-run museum began in 2004. But there have been delays.

On a small stand in the makeshift visitors center are a series of BioMuseo postcards with “Opening 2009” stamped on the front.

“We’ve been through four different administrations,” López tells the preview tour group as it makes its way up the stairs to what will be the museum’s main entrance.

Some government officials were obviously more committed than others to the manpower and millions of dollars needed to create such a massive attraction. But progress seems to be barreling along again, speeding toward an anticipated August 2013 opening.

Informational presentations about the museum, which include a video about Frank Gehry, as well as photos and renderings of the building and exhibits, are currently available to the public on Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.

For the hard-hat tour, arrive by 1 p.m., and be sure to wear long pants and closed-toe shoes. The tour is free when booked online at; otherwise it’s US$2 a person.

Edificio 136, Calzada de Amador, Apartado 0843-02931, Panamá; +507 2 314 0097

More on CNN: Gehry's Hong Kong Opus