Stories from Beneath the Water: The Panama Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

Panama presented its pavilion on "Stories Beneath the Water" at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Curated by Aimée Lam Tunon and Jasper Zehetgruber, the exhibition explored themes of division and integration, with a focus on three different areas within the former Panama Canal Zone. It is an analysis that addresses issues of division and integration: Divisive architectural structures and systems; erased identities of submerged communities; and Barro Colorado Island, critically examining and questioning the overlaps between notions of protection and control.

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© naaro | Exhibition Images

Since ancient times, the tropics have been widely recognized as a symbol of exotic beauty, dangerous animals, and lush vegetation. Portrayed as a distant place with different stories, languages, and cultures, this geographical area represents a blend of qualities that define the fantastic and mysterious nature of reality. Often seen from a Western perspective as a hostile environment to progress, the tropics embody everything that Europe and the United States are not (Lasso, 2019), the antithesis of civilized modernity. The exhibition of the Panama Pavilion should provide a counter-narrative to this status quo, with Panama as a case study for a future vision of a 'tropical' nation, reclaiming and connecting its diverse historical influences. - Aimée Lam Tunon.

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© naaro | Exhibition Images

In the first space, "Separation for Control," visitors discover the actual impacts of these intervention zones that control and divide. Furthermore, their assumptions about the tropics are exposed as illusions. The space explores the Isthmus of Panama, a narrow strip of land between two oceans. This transportation hub has been pivotal in Panamanian history and has been shaped by the theme of trade. The area has undergone many iterations: Spanish colonial control, the French attempt to seize the area, followed by the U.S. vision of imperial administration, creating the "Panama Canal Zone." This strip of land was the defining landscape of modernity, emerging as a buffer zone of protection between the colonizer and the colonized.

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The second space, "The Magical Pathway Beneath the Surface," is located in the courtyard, unearthing collective memories of the past. Given the power of modernism to erase indigenous histories and cultures, many local Panamanian communities were lost in the process of constructing the Canal, resulting in a singular ideology: control. The space allows for reflection on colonial trauma while constantly unlearning Western modernist definitions of "tropics" or "magical land."

The third space is symbolic of Barro Colorado Island (BCI). Located atop a hill that became isolated in the Panama Canal after the construction of the dam, BCI is a quite unique space. The island has been the most studied tropical island in the world, touted as "a living scientific archive and laboratory," creating a narrative where the island becomes a space for scientific knowledge. The final room of the exhibition questions the history, diversity, and legacy of this tropical enclave. The exhibition explores the preservation of regional and global biodiversity. The space is one of listening and critical reflection, where a future scenario of modernity in Panama is imagined beyond the notions of protection and control.

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© naaro | Exhibition Images

In the exhibition, references were found to the work of Dante Furioso, an architect from the Yale School of Architecture and a doctoral student in History and Theory of Architecture at Princeton University; Marixa Lasso, current director of the Center for Historical, Anthropological, and Cultural Research of Panama (AIP) and author of various publications; Danilo Pérez, musician and composer, founder of the annual Panama Jazz Festival; Alejandro Pinto, Director of Sales and Trade at Panama's largest underwater timber company, CoastEcoTimber; Luis Pulido Ritter, Professor at the University of Panama, and writer, academic, and essayist based between Panama and Berlin; and Joan Flores-Villalobos, current Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of Southern California (USC).

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© naaro | Exhibition Images

For the 18th Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, the pavilions of many other countries have explored and questioned their local landscapes. The Pavilion of Chile presented "Ecologies in Motion," exploring how the future will not only be built but also sown and planted. The Pavilion of Brazil presented "Terra," reflecting on Brazil's past, present, and future, revolving around the earth as the center of discussion.

Credits for the Panama Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale

Commissioner: Itzela Quiroz

Curator: Aimée Lam Tunon
Concept / Creative Direction: Jasper Zehetgruber

Participants / Research based on: Dante Furioso, Dr. Marixa Lasso, Danilo Perez, Joan Flores-Villalobos, Dr. Luis Pulido Ritter, Dr. Fahim Amir.

Public Relations Management: Desiree Lam Tunon.
Production Design / Visual Research: Marvin Flores Unger.
Graphic Identity / Web Archive: Finn Steffens & Conrad Weise.
Research Intern / Mapping: Maik Stricker.
Barro Colorado Island Installation: Marda Zenawi.
Veranda Production: Emmanuel Maria Marchi and Gaspard Diatta.

Documentary Videography / Editing: Valentin Duggon.
Exhibition Photography:
Naaro Studio.

Sponsors: Banco Nacional de Panamá, Coast Eco Timber, , Europanamena S.A., Fundación Strelitzia, Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, Biblioteca Linda Hall, Senacyt, Ximena Eleta de Sierra.

Special acknowledgments: Art Events, Francesca Noia, Peter Nicastro, Smithsonian Institution, The Architecture Story.

We invite you to follow ArchDaily's complete coverage of the Venice Biennale 2023: The Laboratory of the Future.

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Cite: Dejtiar, Fabian. "Stories from Beneath the Water: The Panama Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023" [Historias bajo el agua: El Pabellón de Panamá en la Bienal de Arquitectura de Venecia 2023] 16 Aug 2023. ArchDaily. (Trans. Harrouk, Christele) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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