a man, a plan, a canal…

September 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

Well, that’s certainly one of the most attractive Integrated Studio sites we’ve ever had…

Some longtime readers may recall a particularly successful run of option studios at ISU several years ago that combined Interior Design and Architecture students on teams that produced award-winning schemes for high rise hotels in Chicago (when I taught it) and Miami Beach, when it was taught by Jason Alread.  After a fortunate elevator conversation in June with our Interior Design chair, Lee Cagley, the two of us decided to revive theidea in the Fall, when I actually teach studio, and to re-cast it as an Integrated Design studio–full of technical requirements like structure, wind bracing, exiting stairs, and climate response, but still  exciting, design-wise.  Lee had planned to do an ecologically-themed resort in Panama City this fall, and we used that as the basis for a hotel program on a site in Amador, formerly one of several US military installations around the Pacific end of the canal.  We had a great response from students in both disciplines, and we’re just finishing up four days of site visits, precedent studies, and empanadas consumption in Panama City.

Lee orchestrated a great trip, one that started with a morning at the Miraflores Locks, where an eight-story visitors center gives you a stadium seating view of the daily ballet of ships inching through locks that are at most a meter or so wider than they are.  The scale of the operation is literally unbelievable, and the fact that the locks themselves are a century old makes them that much more impressive (built, let’s remember, by many of the same people and machines that built the Sanitary and Ship Canal outside of Chicago…)
We stayed in university dorms right across the road from the locks, so this was a daily drama.  But the competing drama, even just a couple of miles outside Panama City, was the rainforest that occupies every available square inch of this part of the world.  And Lee made sure we saw plenty of that, too.  An aerial tram and tower at Gamboa was a good introduction, but a more informal–and much more immersive–chance to see Panama’s biodiversity in action came in the form of a drenching morning at Canopy Tower, a defunct and lightly re-occupied radar tower a few miles inland.  A couple of hours atop that, and walking through the dense, stratified forest, was a really intense blast of what the climate and land here are capable of, and the forces that are very obviously taking back whatever we’ve borrowed from them.  Every road we drove on outside of the city was edged in an impatient tangle of vines, grasses, and trees, reminding you that everything we’ve built here is temporary–even that big slice through the Isthmus.

So that is kind of the theme for the fall–can you create an environment that lets guests have a real connection to the power and beauty of the natural forces at work in this place while also fitting in to a city that is seeing phenomenal growth, that is connected to the whole world through its unique infrastructure and its financial industry, and that respects the complicated natural and political history of this place?

We’ll see, but this seems like a fearless, clever group, and we have lucked into a site that seems to embody all of these contradictions.  The Amador Peninsula was one of the most strategic points at the mouth of the canal, and its redevelopment into a convnention and entertainment center comes with all kinds of tough questions about how your remediate land that was aggressively clear cut, and then poisoned by a fuel tank farm.  

One answer is to gloss over all of that with something shiny, and one of the really good debates we’ve had is over Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo, a museum of Panama’s natural history that is about half a mile down the peninsula from our site.  It has a relentlessly upbeat message–this place is special, and we can do a better job of conserving it–but the building itself, designed to mimic a rainforest canopy with concrete and sheet metal “trees,” is a powder-coated monument to profligate embodied energy.  Couldn’t you “raise awareness” (always a signature cop out line) by making your building an analogue of natural processes  instead of a metaphorical nod to its mere forms?

I know, show don’t tell, coach don’t preach.  But the more I see it (and, FBOW, you can see the damn thing everywhere in Panama City)’ the more this latest Gehry’s crumpled hut strikes me as a dramatic ethical failing and a missed opportunity to do something that really with the experience of fragile relentlessness that we saw in Canopy Tower.  Is it possible for human and natural habitats to support one another in ways that are also rich with experience and connections?  Good questions to ask, especially over covina alla plancha at Mer e Terra, the official fish shack of Arch 403/603 & ID 668, Fall, 2016.


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