Rooms with a View
A landscape renovation at the Panama Canal opens windows into the landscape.
By Jimena Martignoni
When Costa Rican architect and landscape architect Carlos Jankilevich
signed on to create a resort hotel on the former site of the School
of the Americas, a combat training school for Latin American recruits,
in Colon, Panama, 50 miles north of Panama City, his task was not
only to redesign the landscape and reintroduce some of the luxuriant
natural surroundings into the degraded site, but to eradicate its
obscure and unsavory history.
Here, from 1946 to 1984, the U.S. Army trained Latin American military personnel,
including some of the era’s most notorious dictators: Former Panamanian leader
Manuel Noriega; El Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson, who formed the death squads
that killed thousands of civilians during the country’s civil war of the 1980s;
and former Argentine president General Leopoldo Galtieri, accused of making
thousands of people “disappear” during the 1970s. (The school left Panama
under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty; it has been renamed the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and now operates out of Fort
Benning in Columbus, Georgia.)
The site, which lies in a spectacular natural setting by Gatun Lake, was abandoned
after the facility closed. When the Panama Republic assumed responsibility
for managing the canal in 1999, the Autoridad de la Región Interoceánica (ARI),
or the Interoceanic Region Authority, an autonomous entity in charge of managing
assets and land reverted by the United States, reserved 363,000 acres for
tourism, development, and conservation. The authority sold the 60-acre School
of the Americas site to Sol Meliá, the largest European hotel developer, which
hired Jankilevich to create the landscape plan for a 25-acre resort, the Hotel
Meliá Panama Canal.
The redevelopment included renovating the three main existing buildings, converting
one into luxury guest rooms for an exclusive business clientele, another into
a fitness center, and the third into a 230-room main hotel. A building containing
condos and another housing hotel employees (where military trainees used to
stay) were also renovated and share the 25 acres. No existing buildings were
destroyed, but all the roofs were rebuilt with Spanish tile, which considerably
changed the look of the architecture. To further unify the structures, the
three main buildings (named Santa Maria, Niña, and Pinta, after the ships
of Columbus) and the condos were painted the same color, an earthy ochre.
(Most of the buildings had originally been shades of gray concrete.) The architecture
assumes a horizontal and relatively low profile, with the highest buildings
rising only four stories. The remaining 35-acre parcel, which also contains
buildings, has not yet been redeveloped, but the hotelier plans to eventually
wrap it into the resort or convert it into a residential community.
Jankilevich’s chief task was to reconnect the site with its natural setting:
A dense wall of natural flora had been allowed to grow to screen the facility
from public view during the decades of use by the School of the Americas.
The landscape program also included creating paths, resting spots, focal points,
public gardens, and open spaces, with formal areas around entrances and access
roads and less-formal spaces around a swimming pool and terraces. In addition
to this redesign of the site, Jankilevich was responsible for creating a maintenance
Tying Site to Setting
The resort site lies on one of the peninsulas emerging from Gatun Lake, so
it is completely surrounded by water. The lake, which covers 166 square miles,
was created by damming the Chagres River as part of the Panama Canal system
between 1904 and 1914. At 78 feet above sea level, the lake serves as a reservoir
for the three canal locks and controls their water levels to lift boats crossing
between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The green islands scattered throughout the lake, covered with native jungle
flora and fauna today, were the peaks of the Continental Divide before the
land was inundated. Like the islands, the peninsula supports lush, tropical
flora. During the rainy season from May to December, the weather is intensely
humid and warm. In the afternoons, the atmosphere is usually filled with a
Jankilevich found the vegetation, the paths, and especially the open spaces
and gardens in a severely deteriorated state. In some places, plants had become
overgrown, and in other spots, they had died. From an aesthetic perspective,
there was no sense of design or harmony. In 2000 he started working on the
ground while still completing the plans, putting together an on-site nursery,
or vivero de sitio, where he grew most of the plants used in the planting
plan. “The site possesses an ecological character and the gardens a cultural
past that has to be preserved,” Jankilevich explains, referring to the era
of the Panama Canal’s construction. “At the same time the wild tropical vegetation
that grows profusely throughout the site needs to be tamed.”
While not an ecotourism resort, the development lies within an ecologically
rich area: The Isthmus of Panama, where species from two hemispheres converge,
is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. As Jankilevich observes,
this richness has contributed a strong natural character to the complex. The
hotel also offers boat rides through the surrounding islands so that guests
can watch birds and other wildlife.
The existing vegetation was carefully cleared to preserve most of the natural
green edge. Jankilevich cut passages through the thick wall of plants that
had formerly hidden the military installation, opening “windows,” as he says,
to provide views from the main hotel to the surrounding water. He opened other
windows to create particularly interesting views and focal points. At the
entrance to the compound, for example, an opening to the right offers the
first glimpse of the water and is a preview of what lies beyond the wall of
The architectural renovations started in 2000, and Jankilevich began working
with the building designers on clearing and planting. A year later, after
the structural work, the hotelier experienced business problems, and Jankilevich
left the project. In 2005 the company rehired him, and he restarted the work.
“Some of the windows had closed again, so we had to repeat the original edge
clearing we had already performed in the beginning,” he says. “Now we track
the everyday landscape maintenance in a much closer way.”
The overall planting scheme is monochromatic, playing up the luxuriant indigenous
green without a lot of floral display. The exceptions are colorful groupings
strategically placed to mark focal points, such as the white morning glory
at the main entrance to the resort and the beds of red ginger (Alpinia
purpurata or ginger rojos) at the entrance of the hotel building.
Another distinctive factor of the new landscape layout is the use of different
scales that incorporate and echo the native forest structure. “I like playing
with the different heights of some characteristic plants, particularly palms,
to offer a game of backgrounds and foregrounds all over the site,” Jankilevich
says. “That is what distinguishes the forest, and we are trying to include
the most typical flora at this unique place.”
The main street is planted with palm groupings of different heights, with striking
visual effect: Vertical white trunks of the native Florida royal palm (Roystonia
regia or palmera real) and Chinese fan palm (Livistonia chinensis)
contrast with low, horizontal clumps of fishtail palm (Caryota mitis
or palmera cola de pescado) and mangrove fan palm (Licuala spinosa
or Licuala de manglar), also a native.
At the entrance of the main hotel building, the Santa Maria, the clustered
planting pattern changes to a single row of Florida royal palms. This accentuates
the shape of the long rectangular building, which is positioned as a focal
point in front of one of the windows opening out to the lake. In these ways,
the added and existing vegetation emphasizes the relationship of the architecture
with the site’s natural attributes. Behind this same building, Jankilevich
cleared another window for one more view to the water and made a path to the
marinas, where the boats depart on excursions to the islands.
This is a case in which the landscape architect had to deal with a series of
natural, cultural, and historic circumstances that were still tangible at
the outset of the project and drove the overall design and conceptual decisions.
The windows that reveal the surrounding aquatic landscape dotted with green
islands create a relationship between a borrowed landscape (Gatun Lake) and
a borrowing landscape (the resort site). The site becomes much more attractive
and unique because of its relationship to its natural enclosure, and creating
windows instead of cutting down the green wall was respectful to the environment,
intentionally retaining the original form as much as possible. Aesthetically,
more clearing would not have been as intriguing as subtly introducing the
borrowed landscape little by little, as the windows do now.
For a project aimed at tourism, especially the clientele of a large international
hotel chain, this rehabilitated landscape respects the existing natural environment
and also makes use of it through a careful planning process. The combined
changes to the architecture and landscape have transformed the site from a
dark, screened-out place to one that is colorful, bright, and open to its
surroundings. Although the configuration of buildings and open space remains
largely the same as before the renovations, the mood and the look of this
once shadowy place now possess true resort appeal.
Jimena Martignoni is an independent landscape architect and researcher in Buenos Aires.
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