The Colors of the Canopy Tower

Stories of the Canopy Tower

The Colors of the Canopy Tower

by Raúl Arias de Para

One of my favorite stories about the Canopy Tower is how I picked the colors with which I painted it after completing its transformation from a US military radar tower into a birding lodge.

At one point in this process the question of painting the tower came up. I thought about it for some days but did not find a satisfactory solution. I also consulted with some architect friends, to no avail. In the end there seemed to be only two choices: use the original colors, which were mainly shades of military gray, or paint it to resemble the surrounding forest, in other words, camouflage paint.

I was not happy with either choice, I found them dull and boring, not imaginative at all, but still did not know what to do. So, I did what I should have done on day one of this existential dilemma—I asked my wife, Denise.

“I don’t have the slightest idea what colors you should use to paint the tower,” she told me sweetly after I had finished explaining in detail the predicament I faced and the different people I had consulted. “However,” she continued, “I suggest you call Ruth, she can help you.” Ruth was Ruth Millergard, a Canadian interior designer based in New York City who had designed all three of Denise’s jewelry shops.

The idea seemed preposterous. To bring an interior designer from New York City to the forest of Central Panama to tell me what colors I should use to paint the tower. No way! What does she know about transforming a radar tower into a birding lodge? Her specialty is designing jewelry shops, not choosing the colors for whatever I was doing.

“Well,” Denise said, “you asked my opinion, I believe Ruth can help you. Please give her a try.”

The next day I called Ruth and sent her a round trip ticket to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport.

She arrived the following Friday evening and stayed in a hotel downtown. Her return flight was on Sunday morning. Thus, she had only one day, Saturday, to solve what was certainly the most unusual job she had ever been contracted to do.

I picked her up bright and early that Saturday in mid-1998 and drove to Semaphore Hill in Soberanía National Park. I have long forgotten the exact date and what we talked about on the way. I do remember that she seemed at ease and in no rush as we climbed the utilitarian metal stairs to what is now the living/dining room of the Canopy Tower. It was the first time Ruth had been in a Neotropical forest and she was delighted with the sights and sounds of the new day. Many birds and mammals came by that morning, but she seemed particularly impressed with a beautiful Keel-billed Toucan that perched very close and which she observed leisurely for a long time. It was the first toucan she had ever seen. We then spent a couple of hours going over my ideas, with frequent interruptions to watch birds. At about mid-day, Ruth told me she wanted to go back to the hotel. “And what colors do you recommend?” I asked her impatiently. “I will let you know in a couple of weeks. I have to think about it a little bit.”

A couple of weeks passed by and one day a regular-sized package came by FEDEX. I opened it excitedly and there it was: Color Scheme of the Canopy Tower, Panama. It detailed exactly the colors I should paint every single part of the building, the doors, the window frames, the floor, the ceiling, the columns, the bedrooms, the kitchen, the bathrooms, the stairs, the inside walls, the outside walls and finally the dome, yes the dome. Yes, the dome, a variation of Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome, the focal point of the future lodge, should be painted with a bright, perky yellow. And the outside walls, a lively, cheerful aquamarine, the ceiling a peaceful white and the columns a deep red. Problem solved! Thank you very much, Ruth!

However, this is not the end of the story. I was worried that the bright yellow recommended for the dome might scare the birds. After all, the standard instructions are that you should wear neutral colors when going through the forest. Again, I was in a quandary, but this time I did not ask Denise, no more round trip tickets from NYC—instead I asked my good friend and birding mentor Dr. Dodge Engleman, one of the top birders in Latin America. He considered my question seriously, stroked his goatee, thought for a minute or so and said, wisely, “Raul, I don’t think the birds will mind.”

In view of all of the above, I proceeded to paint the tower with the exact colors Ruth had recommended.

Some time later I asked Ruth how she picked those colors. I was curious how she had chosen those precise colors out of the thousands of colors available, and she told me: “Remember that toucan I saw the day we visited the tower? That Keel-billed Toucan was the first toucan I had seen in my life and the colors impressed me so much that I could not think of anything else. Actually, it was a no-brainer.”

The yellow of the dome comes from the chest of the toucan. The aquamarine and the red from its bill, the white from its tail.