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American Society of Landscape Architects


December 2005 Issue

Rooms with a View
A landscape renovation at the Panama Canal opens windows into the landscape.

By Jimena Martignoni

Rooms with a View
Guy Wenborne

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 plan.

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 diaphanous mist.

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 plants.

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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