Panamá, en camino

The quickest way of crossing the continent of the Americas is to plunge yourself into the Panama Canal, an 82-kilometre stretch linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. For some reason, the new slogan that the National Tourism Authority has chosen is Panama, the way (video). This country, situated halfway between north and south, provides a concise overview of the immensity of the Americas, distilling the essence of many of its complex characteristics.


The urban development of Panama City has been defined by an acute angle between the Pacific coast and the Canal Zone, which was established in 1904 – one year after Panama split from Colombia. Its disjointed and linear growth has generated a wide range of organisational systems that pose a challenge preconceived ideas. The lack of suitable legislation to ensure a traditional model of sustainable growth and the savage manipulations of private interests has had both disastrous and spectacular results.

Skyscrapers, Panamá, Photo Darién Montañez 2013
On top and above: Costa del Este's skyscrapers. Photo Darién Montañez
This succession of styles, from the colonial period down to the present day, gives occasional visitors a violently discordant image of the city. This attractive amalgam also includes colonial buildings, most of which were developed between the 16th Century and the country’s independence in 1821. These include French-style constructions similar to their contemporaries in New Orleans; beautiful wooden houses in leafy neighbourhoods where the Americans settled at the start of the 20th Century; neoclassical, art nouveau and art deco buildings; plain, modern architecture that started to appear in the early 1930s; interesting, functionalist spaces from the 1950s; a recent profusion of postmodern buildings and occasional ones that have so far resisted attempts at classification and are now the subject of debate.
Feoclásico, Panamá, Photo Darién Montañez 2013
Examples of the High Ugly Classic , Panamá. Photo Darién Montañez
Modern architecture is visible in the shape of skyscrapers, which form a Miami-style coastal belt around the city. This profusion of prisms, encased in coloured glass and extreme air conditioning, overshadows the city’s higher quality architecture. Taking the motorway to the city from the airport you aim straight for the exclusive Costa del Este neighbourhood, an accumulation of towers that rise up over what were once mangroves, swamps and the city’s main garbage dump. Since the 1960s, the construction industry has produced literally heaps of banks, hotels, offices and shopping malls, none of which have any relationship with their environment. This scene of generic high-rises has been created to the detriment of marginal residential areas, which attract heavy immigration and little governmental attention.
Feoclásico, Panamá, Photo Darién Montañez 2013
Examples of the Popular Ugly Classic Panamá 2013. Photo Darién Montañez
In this rather unstimulating architectural scene, peripheral phenomena become important. With his unprejudiced vision, architect Darién Montañez has turned his attention to some of the most extravagant constructions, usually ignored by the Academy, as the focus for his studies. He has coined the neologism Feoclásico (‘Ugly Classic’) to refer to constructions that are built in degenerate classic style, beyond a smattering of neoclassical revision. He views the abundant production of pieces of discredited architecture as a manifestation of our society. They make no attempt to create an identity within their context, instead creating one that is utterly different.
Feoclásico, Panamá, Photo Darién Montañez 2013
Examples of the Popular Ugly Classic Panamá 2013. Photo Darién Montañez
The theory of the so-called Popular Ugly Classic exerts a powerful influence over civil construction in Panama, like a patina polluting every surface. “Generally anonymous and small scale, […] it is used in homes and parks all over the country to show off wealth or to be memorable. Although it is sometimes seen in new buildings, it appears through a gradual, additional process in pre-existing buildings, covering houses or whole districts, capital by capital and baluster by baluster .”
Like a patina polluting every surface, the theory of the so-called Popular Ugly Classic exerts a powerful influence over civil construction in Panama
This cross-cutting vision also takes in building developments of questionable style, grouping them under the heading of High Ugly Classic[…] grandiloquent and particularly offensive. It is ‘high’ because of its more refined pretensions and because it is primarily seen in luxury apartment blocks. Unlike the Popular Ugly Classic, this is an auteur-built, architect-design Ugly Classic, so it has to be called High because of its price tag .”
Feoclásico, Panamá, Photo Darién Montañez 2013
Examples of the Popular Ugly Classic Panamá 2013. Photo Darién Montañez
Ugly classic architecture evades the norms of haute culture, instead returning to the parameters defined by Panamanian architecture in the 16th Century, which was an imitation of a foreign style, hybridised with local techniques and decoration. Like the best works of postmodernism it is a self-referential historicist collage. It challenges us with enigmas we can’t extract ourselves from. Couldn’t it be natural for people to be attracted to beauty? Isn’t it more profitable and faster to create good architecture? Seeking answers with which to console ourselves is to suggest that this screeching freedom of form may have internal programmatic values, that it may be an ill-conceived trompe-l’oeil that conceals an interesting approach to volumes; a launchpad for the architecture of the future. Glimpsing a certain innocence in its obvious artificiality, we may be reminded of the words of Susan Sontag: The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. […] It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated.
Feoclásico, Panamá, Photo Darién Montañez 2013
Examples of the Popular Ugly Classic Panamá 2013. Photo Darién Montañez

It is against this backdrop that we encounter the daring shapes of the future Bio-Museum designed by Frank Gehry. Also known as the Bridge of Life building, it is sited at the Canal’s Pacific entrance. According to the official blurb “it will be a new icon for Panama”, “a striking building unlike anything most of its visitors have ever experienced” and “a memorable experience, even when viewed from afar.”


Like other works by Gehry, its most significant feature is its arbitrariness of form, the vindication of a subjective creative impulse exercised through individual freedom. Its aspiration seems to be to activate the economy, reproducing the much sought-after Bilbao effect. While the titanium sheets of Spain’s Guggenheim gave it an unprecedented and soothing material continuity, Gehry returns to the heterogeneity of his early deconstructivist works in the Bio-Museum. He accentuates the fragmentation of the spaces with a deliberately excessive colour palette.


All we can do is await its inauguration in the spirit of Henry Miller at the age of 80: The most difficult thing for a creative individual is to refrain from the effort to make the world to his liking and to accept his fellow man for what he is, whether good, bad or indifferent. One does his best, but it is never good enough. — Isabel Martínez Abascal

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