Panama Garden

2008 Award of Merit, Florida Chapter, American Society of Landscape Architects

Creating gardens in a foreign land, where a different language is spoken can be a challenging task. When the property is of an unusual shape with mostly steep terrain, surrounded by large scale residences, the task is compounded. When we first became involved with this project, the property was little more than a vast muddy slope. Convenient yet removed from the frenetic energy of Panama City, the dramatic piece of land had never been seriously considered for development. Our clients saw an opportunity to re-create in large scale the ambience of their weekend retreat on Isla Contadora, located in the Pearl Islands off the coast. The building site posed considerable challenges not only because of the topography but also due to the configuration of the lot.

The building plans were finalized before the site plan was fully developed, so we proposed certain revisions to work with the landscape features of the site. We redesigned the climbing entrance drive, bending it around an existing elephant’s ear tree. We also suggested a small-scale pavilion pulled away from the body of the building in lieu of the grand porte-cochere in the original scheme. Our intention was to float the pavilion in a lush tropical garden, creating planting areas to visually diminish the scale of the structure. The pavement beneath the pavilion roof is articulated with local stone in an axial pattern that draws the eye toward a multilevel reflection pond and a quiet waterfall enveloped in ferns.

Boulders strewn over the site lend credence to the organically shaped water elements and provide a visual foil to the scale of the architecture. The residence is three stories on the approach side, but four stories on the pool side, and the guest suite on the lowest level required a retaining wall to accommodate the grade change. We expanded the garden area by the guest quarters, adding a generous fish/turtle pond and water-bowl cascade. The wall and eight-foot-diameter bowl are veneered with porous pebbles, which are ideal for supporting vegetation.

A proposed entertainment pavilion/gym occupied our preferred site for the main swimming pool, so we suggested pushing that building, which we ultimately designed, to the periphery of the property, and behind a huge mango tree. The bathroom, gym, and spa share a generous covered terrace, and the roof is detailed as a planter to help the building blend into its surroundings. The vista from the gym takes in a long, shallow lounge pool accessible from the covered terrace, which provides a path to the spa and main pool beyond.

Completed: 2005
Location: Panama City, Panama
Photography: Richard Felber

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