Panama is a city encoded with a vast and rich history and culture. The walls and streets of this city are a storytelling element of the tales of the city’s endurance through colonialism and the city’s identity as a base of the major shipping industry. Most of the pre-Columbian landmarks of the city have been lost to time, yet the structures standing in evidence of the Spanish Colonization of the city and its position as one of the bases in Central America back in the early 1500s are present to date. Thus today, the city expresses itself in heavy Spanish influence, which is the direct outcome of the flourishing of construction and growth of the city during the city’s time as a base of Spanish colonised Central America.

An architectural review of a location: Panama - Sheet1
Panama Canal_ ©Ovidiu Craciun

The tale of the city

An architectural review of a location: Panama - Sheet2
Old Quarter of Panama in 19th Century_ ©Internet Archive Book Images

The history of human settlement and civilisation in the city of Panama can be dated back thousands of years. However, the city was founded in 1519 by Pedro Arias de Avila, and within a few years of which, the city developed as one of the most significant launching points for the exploration and conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. Fourth earliest founded among the modern-day capital cities of America, the city also became a transit point for hauling gold and silver from the Isthmus back to Spain. The city’s past as the stop point in the leading trade routes in the American continent has resulted in the image of the city in architectural terms today. Panama’s greatest architectural transformation came after the completion of the construction of the Panama Canal in 1994, granting it a key to global trade and helping generate national wealth to stand as an independent nation rendering Panama the wealthiest country in Central America.

Architectural Expression

An architectural review of a location: Panama - Sheet3
Spanish Colonial Buildings in Panama_ ©The Sweetest Way

The city of Panama is drenched in the Spanish influence that is vivid in the mansions, government and religious buildings, and other major landmarks of the city. Embedded in the lush green of the mountains and the blues of the ocean, the city of Panama is an amalgamation of colours and styles erected amidst a concrete jungle. The diverse architectural landscape of Panama houses the Gothic Spanish Colonial Architectural buildings in combination with subtler, more refined versions of the same that developed in later years of colonisation. The military architecture was expressed in forts surrounding the city, each with its tale of birth, purpose, and demise. It is a vibrant city with the use of a large range of building materials, decorations, and architectural styles. Ranging from Spanish colonial architecture to high-rise skyscrapers, the city skyline is a balance between the old and the new. Old towns are embedded within the newer cities, and the lives of the people revolve amidst this union of the old with the new.

Important Landmarks

The city is filled with amazing landmarks of Colonial times that set it apart from the rest of Central America. Fort San Lorenzo, built in 1598 at the mouth of the Charles River, is one of the most significant structures that was built to protect the area from the attacks of pirates and to facilitate Spain’s extraction of resources from the area but was destroyed in 1670. Likewise, Portobelo, which served as an important trade hub and overlooked the Panama Canal, Castillo San Jerónimo, the town’s biggest fort, and Castillo Santiago de la Gloria that, is located just outside of the town, exemplify the dominant earlier military architecture that was present during 17tha and 18th centuries. 

An architectural review of a location: Panama - Sheet4
Casco Viejo_ ©Dennis Garcia

Casco Viejo, the oldest part of the city, also named a world heritage site by UNESCO, has some of the most beautifully restored buildings of colonial times and has undergone further restoration since it enlisted in the World Heritage Site in 1997. It is rich in Art Nouveau buildings that flourished in the city as a result of the economic boom brought about by the construction of the Panama Canal. Chitré, dating back to the 16th Century, is one of the oldest towns in Panama, with cathedrals, mansions, and government buildings in Spanish colonial architectural style. One such example is the La San Juan Bautista cathedral, completed in 1910, which is a cathedral with subtle decoration and a streamlined exterior. 

An architectural review of a location: Panama - Sheet5
Well Preserved Structures from Casco Viejo_ ©The Sweetest Way

Buildings of Today

An architectural review of a location: Panama - Sheet6
Biomuseo by Frank Gehry_ ©Editorpana

Today Panama is slowly embracing modernism and boasts the presence of emerging architectural vocabularies ranging from high-tech to Organic to minimalistic modern architecture that has taken over the world. . It is in a blend of colonial landmarks with high-rise skyscrapers and a canvas to iconic works of architecture to architects and designers from all around the world. The Biomuseo, designed by Frank Gehry, is one of the examples of structures being realised in the city of Panama. With large signature panels covering the museum’s exterior, it is a colourful work of architecture dedicated to biodiversity. Built-in irregular, overlapping forms, the building is a stark contrast to the predominant buildings of the city and marks the city’s acceptance of modernism. F&F Tower, also known as El Tornillo (the screw), is an example of the skyscraper that has become the reality of the street skyline today. It is a truly unique building with a green glass casing that envelops a spiralling structure.

El Tornillo_ ©Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)

Another example of the city’s architectural statement is Yoo Panama at the heart of Balboa Avenue, a multi-story luxury condo development by Philippe Stark to create a truly extraordinary living space. The 75-story tall building facing the ocean captures an enamouring view for the residents. Trump tower is one such example of a water-front mixed-use condominium tower designed by Columbian architect Arias-Serna-Saravia S.A. that stands as an example of the flourishing of high-rise buildings as the dominating architecture of the city.

In Nutshell

Image 8_ Fort San Lorenzo_ ©Nomadic Niko 

The architecture of a city can never be separate from the city’s very identity itself. Thus, it is only natural for the city of Panama to express the tale of the endurance of the city through its past colonisation and foreign intervention through the distinct form of architecture and urban design it currently hosts. The European influence has persisted in the architectural vocabulary of the city, which was engrained in the city’s memory through numerous structures, most of which were of sociocultural and political significance, like temples and churches, and governmental offices. The independence of Panama from colonization didn’t ensure its liberation from the imposed architectural expression. At present, however, modernism has caught hold of Panama, with multitudes of newer architectural expressions being added to the language of the region. Undoubtedly, Panama will continue to add to its architectural and urban fabric more structures and spatial interventions that address the sign of the times, and the authentic experience of a life lived in the city with time.


Anywhere (2023). Exploring The History of Architecture in Panama [online] Available at: (Accessed on January 28, 2023)

PHYL On The Go (2023). STRIKING ARCHITECTURE IN PANAMA CITY, PANAMA [online] Available at: (Accessed on January 28, 2023)

ArcGIS (2023). Panama’s Architecture [online] Available at: (Accessed on January 28, 2023)

Panamum (2023). A Deeper Understanding of Panamanian Architecture [online] Available at:,its%20vast%20and%20rich%20history(Accessed on January 28, 2023)


An architecture and art enthusiast, Rashmi Gautam, is an Architecture Student from Nepal in search of her own expression in forms of words and design. Finding solace in the company of literature, art and architecture, she can be found brooding in the nearest library or museum.