Tuesday, Oct 5, 1999 4:00 PM UTC

Stop the locks schlock

Can Frank Gehry do for Panama what he did for Bilbao?

You’re at the top of your game. You’ve won architecture’s Nobel, the Pritzker Prize. You do not lack for challenging projects likely only to enhance your profile, from a small pottery museum on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast to the still-unrealized Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Your Guggenheim Bilbao — with its arresting mix of quirky, bulbous forms clad in costly, elegant materials — transformed a previously under-visited Basque city, just as the Pompidou Center did for a once-sleepy section of Paris. If you are Frank Gehry, what, in heaven’s name, do you do for an encore?

The answer to that question, of course, is anyone’s guess, and depends largely upon the usual mix of factors that bedevils the architectural enterprise: a client with money to pay a commission, getting others to cooperate in executing your architectural vision (a special challenge when that vision is as famously eccentric as Gehry’s) and the ability to coordinate the activities of myriad workers and craftspeople in support of a single goal. But of all possible projects that may command Gehry’s time and attention as he enters his eighth decade, perhaps none is as tantalizing in its possibilities as Gehry’s likely role in the redevelopment of the Panama Canal.

At noon on Dec. 31 of this year, the United States will hand over its remaining authority over the canal zone to the Republic of Panama. This amounts to the last step in a gradual transfer of control over one of the world’s most significant maritime routes — a 50-mile stretch containing three locks that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Not surprisingly, the imminent transfer has unleashed a welter of forces inside Panama, all tussling with one another for the rights to be the one to turn a profit in the canal zone.

The Panamanian entity charged with managing the zone, the Autoridad de la Regisn Interoceania, or ARI, launched its management under a cloud. ARI rented homes on a reverted U.S. air base on highly favorable terms to cronies of former Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares — instead of auctioning them to the general public, as had been promised. The former president’s administration insisted that no corruption was involved. Still, the scandal fed popular suspicion that the reversion of the canal would benefit an entrenched elite and not the entire nation.

ARI Director Nicolas Ardita Barleta then announced plans to redevelop the canal with hotels, a golf course and casinos — plans that, to some, promised to turn Panama into a ticky-tacky Central American Atlantic City. Gehry would never have been asked to review these plans except for what he calls his “serendipitous relationship to the country.” His wife, Bertha, is Panamanian by birth, and for a quarter-century the Gehrys have spent one week a year in Panama visiting her family.

In April 1998, his wife’s cousin, a dentist, helped draw Gehry into canal redevelopment. Rodrigo Eisenman is not just any dentist. He is also the cousin of Roberto Eisenman, one of Panama’s most prominent citizens. In the 1980s, as owner and editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, Roberto Eisenman was one of the few people who consistently dared to rail publicly against the abuses of Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega. Rodrigo, the dentist, introduced the two men. Gehry was taken by Roberto, whom he describes as “a land owner, an idealist. Obviously a fighter. One of the best people they have.”

When Roberto Eisenman showed him Nicky Barleta’s development plans, “I was kind of freaked out,” Gehry recalls. “It was low-level, 10th-rate casino development.” He remembers that “Rodrigo and Bobby wanted me to go to the canal. They were interested in reflagging land-use projects.” Initially, Gehry says, he balked. “What’s a gringo going to do?” he asked the cousins. But they insisted, he says, that “your opinion would, if made known, change this.”

This discussion led Eisenman, who is now a special advisor to Panama’s newly elected populist President Mireya Moscoso, to introduce Gehry to Hana Ayala. Ayala, the Czech-born wife of Francisco Ayala, President Clinton’s science and technology advisor, heads an eco-tourism consulting firm in Orange County, Calif. She also is the driving force behind the grandly titled “Tourism-Conservation-Research Action Plan.”

TCR aims to produce a model for development that will be both financially lucrative and ecologically sensitive. This is of no small consequence as Panama faces the prospect of runaway development: The country sustains more than 80 percent of North American shore birds that spend winters in its biologically sensitive mangrove swamps. It is rich with still-untouched rain forests. In addition, Panama contains an abundance of 16th century Spanish ruins — historic sites that require immediate preservation work if they are not simply to go the way of the conquistadors.

In short, Ayala’s TCR aims to attract the kind of tourists who are now drawn to rain-forest tours in Costa Rica, and not, as many in Panama would like, shoppers in search of the Latin American Singapore. To this end, she’s assembled an impressive array of talent: an economist from Harvard’s Institute for International Development, scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panamanian tourism officials — and Gehry, who’s been charged with outlining appropriate forms of architectural infrastructure for Canal redevelopment.

He can, Ayala speculates, “develop infrastructure at the highest level that would promote tourism.” She sees him contributing, further, a “national model that others could use.” In concrete terms, Ayala has at least a couple of ideas as to what all that high-falutin talk might mean. Maybe, she proposes, he’ll design a “National Heritage Interpretive Center,” at the mouth of the canal — a kind of museum that explains Panama’s unusually rich combination of natural and cultural history owing to its location as the “bridge” between the Americas. Or he might design structures at both entrances to the “Camino de Cruces” — a crucial trade route running between the two oceans and across which gold and other commodities have traveled since the time of the Incas.

Gehry seems to have grander visions of what he might do in the bridge between the Americas. The possibilities he envisions are tantalizing, especially for admirers of his unpredictable style — what the Pritzker jury lauded as his ability to make “users appreciative of both the theater and the back-stage.”

“If I had a choice of things to do,” says the architect, “[I'd work on] moving the locks, on a scale that would give them character.” In December 1998, Gehry attended a banquet held next to the canal’s Mira Flores lock. About 20 ships were run through the locks that evening. Gehry becomes animated when he describes the wonder of watching the big boats moving through the locks. The locks, he enthuses, are “a kinetic sculpture, an incredible experience.” Gehry also waxes eloquent on the possibilities of a huge aquarium of the Americas.

There is more. He imagines working on a bridge crossing the locks,” adding, “I wouldn’t be averse to participating in some way.” Like Ayala, he envisions a possible role for himself in building an elaborate visitor’s center, but “maybe one that would entice people to go further, to spend a few days.” He also imagines an undefined architectural project that could help “make the relation of the canal to the rain forest” clearer, or one that would help “rejuvenate” the ruined Spanish trading port of Colsn.

Yet after offering each possibility, Gehry steps back, insisting that maybe he should just retreat into the shadows and let “the kids” take over - by which he means up-and-coming Panamanian architects. Part of the difficulty, he explains, is not just that Panama is a relatively poor country, but that its mercantile culture “is not terribly interested in architecture. They have the opportunity to develop themselves, but not a history of architecture and no history of capital projects.”

“Some people,” Gehry continues, “think I can just come down and do what I did in Bilbao.” But Spain had already built projects by world-class architects — the Spaniard Santiago Calatrava, and the Britons Sir Norman Foster and James Stirling — by the time he did the Guggenheim Bilbao. “I can’t just go in and make a building. You need a lot of stuff. At Bilbao it was a whole community that believed and wanted it.”

Still, it seems reasonable to muse that Gehry’s involvement could matter. Like Roberto Eisenman, Gehry presents himself as a fighter. In Panama, he says, “we need to make architecture part of the struggle” — a struggle “to keep land from being raped from greedy developers.” But Roberto Eisenman, presumably caught up in the turmoil of advising a new and inexperienced president, hasn’t returned his calls in several months.

So Gehry remains at work backstage on part of a plan for sustainable development of the canal. What does he think is likely to happen? “A million to one,” he grouses, the redevelopment will be, in a word, “schlocky.” What’s needed, he avers, is leadership — whether it be from Panama’s new president, or from supportive verbal nudgings from someone with credibility on development issues, someone like Al Gore. And maybe, just maybe, Frank Gehry’s leadership will, if nothing else, stop the schlock.