For isolationists and zombie-apocalypse fanboys, the future of architecture may mean buildings will resemble designer-fortresses, like The Safe House by Polish Architectural firm, KWK Promes. Impenetrable blocks of concrete plug up the windows, steel shutters come slamming down over the glass front door and a drawbridge entrance is hoisted up — and all this with the push of a single button.
To conservationists and green-libertarians, structures yet to come may take engineering cues from nature, like The Green School complex in Bali, Indonesia. Bamboo chalkboards, compost-toilets, cotton tents deployed to keep classrooms cool and water-vortexes that produce 8,000 watts of electricity, day and night, help to keep the complex off the grid.

But now, thanks to Canadian-born architect, Frank Gehry, there is a new way of looking at the future of building design. Durable, industrial-strength engineering without the apocalyptic nuances of a concrete stronghold. Low-footprint construction that’s considerate of the surrounding eco-system without asking visitors to politely turn their shite into plant food. Originally sketched out by Gehry as a schoolhouse scribble in 2002, Panama’s new biodiversity museum is on track to becoming one of Latin America’s most sophisticated structures.
15 million years ago, chains of sputtering volcanoes dotted the Central American Seaway where the Pacific and Atlantic waters mingled gleefully. About twelve million years later, the isthmus of Panama rose from the deep like a hulking sea-snake from a campy sci-fi film. The flow of water between the two oceans was severed by the new land bridge and created what we now know as the Gulf Stream. The mighty Atlantic grew saltier. And ancestors of racoons, dogs, horses, llamas, porcupines and cats used the new link as a means of migration from one continent to the other forever changing the fabric of the Western Hemisphere.
It was a tectonic event that some scientists claim is one of the most important geologic happenings in the last 60 million years — and Gehry agrees. The Pritzker Prize-winning architect made this transformation the cornerstone of his hundred-million dollar design.
When one passes over the Bridge of the Americas into Panama City it’s impossible to miss Gehry’s jagged technicolor beast lazing on the banks of the Amador Causeway, at the mouth of the canal. A crumpled up candy wrapper tossed away nonchalantly by the great gods above.
After a closer look, shallow pools of rainwater against the sides of the structure’s exposed concrete foundation give the casual bystander the impression that the building itself is emerging from the water right before their eyes.
In fact, the entire structure, from peak to footing, reflects the culture, the history, the geology and the biodiversity of its home country.
The steel roof panels that jut-out harshly in every direction represent the angular formations of a rocky landmass as it ascends from the deep blue sea, dripping in salt water. The kaleidoscopic facades underscore the tropical biodiversity of the country. The two elements, steel and colour, come together to reflect the thousands of painted shipping containers that pass by the museum daily on the aching backs of ocean liners during their passages through the canal.
Not only is the roof symbolic, but it’s sophisticated as well. The many tangled panels work together to divert harsh tropical winds and to transport rain water (much like leaves in a dense jungle canopy) to a specific location on the ground where it is filtered through a rocky bed and stored for septic use. The panels also function as instruments for climate control, reflecting the sun’s heat so effectively that the difference in temperature between the the surface of a panel and its underside can vary as much as 100 degrees — thus reducing the museum’s dependancy on air conditioning.
But the most future-facing detail of the structure is not architectural at all.
One of Gehry’s original stipulations for taking the project on was that a large outdoor space that snakes around and throughout the museum grounds would be completely open and free for the public to use as a park, one that is even open to skateboarders and buskers. True progress considering the fact that fifteen years ago, the entire causeway was part of the American Canal Zone making it illegal for Panamanians to enter the area.
A conceptual symmetry between man and nature has been realized with Gehry’s Biomuseo, which will be open to the public sometime in 2014 and completely finished by 2015. The natural history of the planet informing the design on its most pervasive inhabitants. A beautiful equilibrium is forming: futurism without the doom and gloom, environmentalism without the nuts and berries.


Originally published in Arc Magazine