Will Middle East High Rise Residential Towers become Deathtraps?



Real Towering Inferno in Los Angeles May 1988

First Interstate Tower Fire and LAFD Engine Co. 13 responding May 1988

Bill Law, Gulf Analyst with BBC News reports on the rash of high-rise tower fires occurring in Sharjah and Dubai within the past year and the potentially disastrous consequences of lax building codes, uneven or non-existent enforcement by local building officials, and negligent conduct of recently-urbanized, immigrant occupants unaccustomed to living in such buildings. The title of his article alludes to the 1970’s cinematic portrayal of a massive high-rise fire in Irwin Allen’s Towering Inferno. Actor Paul Newman is featured as the signature, 138-story, residential tower’s architect who when confronted by San Francisco Fire Battalion Chief Steve McQueen about building code compliance, learns that the slippery project engineer, played by Richard Chamberlain, has made numerous unauthorized substitutions to a critical electrical system components causing overloading and subsequently igniting the massive fire.

The BBC interviewed Thomas Bohlen, Director for the Middle Eastern Center for Sustainable Design. By Mr. Bohlen’s estimation, there are over 500 buildings in the Gulf States that are clad using a composite aluminum sheathed panel with a combustible thermoplastic core. The use of this type of building material is restricted to less than 4 stories in United States building codes and has not been used in the United Kingdom since the 1980’s. Mr. Bohlen notes that the thermoplastic core panels are very durable, long lasting and easy to maintain but ignite easily.

Although the United Arab Emirates have now enacted new building codes prohibiting these aluminum clad thermoplastic panels, there remains a large quantity of high rise residential buildings already featuring these panels. The recent fire at Al Hafeet Tower 2 in Sharjah completely gutted 10 floors of the 20-story building and required 2 hours for firefighters to extinguish. Tower occupants were displaced and told to sleep in their vehicles overnight. Local Security officials have arrested an Ethiopian and a Filipina for leaving their apartment locked with an unattended gas stove that led to the ignition of flammable materials stored on their balcony.

Gulf States such as Qatar have allowed unprecedented growth of these high rise towers in their capitol city of Doha, but without concomitant budgets for code enforcement or investigation into the cause of these increasingly frequent fires.

BBC’s Bill Law also points out that insurance companies are likely to lead to efforts to address fire and life safety deficiencies due to the magnitude of potential losses they face.

Abraxas principal Jeffrey Luney has first hand experience with high-rise fire investigations, insurance claims for loss replacement and design enhancements for increased safety. He played an instrumental role in the aftermath of the catastrophic First Interstate Tower fire in Los Angeles, California that occurred in May 1988. Refer to the project description on the Abraxas Architecture website here:


Read the entire BBC News article here:


Read about the Sharjah fire and resulting 10 floors completely gutted here:


Glimpsing the “Supernatural”: Ruminations on “Double Take” Installation by Patrick Dougherty


Doors of perception

Children experience sculpture through play

On my way to the Palo Alto Rinconada Swimming Pool I glanced over at what appeared to by large, rustic hay bales or primitive dwelling units occupying a corner of green lawn outside of the Palo Alto Center for the Arts at the intersection of Newell and the Embarcadero. After concluding my late afternoon swim training I walked back over as the sun was nearly set, allowing sufficient illumination to see the sculptural forms but lending a further element of visual intrigue as the light levels began to rapidly fade and obscured the boundaries of the artwork.

The installation was originally constructed created by Irish artist Patrick Dougherty two years ago in January 2011. The installation consists of several conical shaped “structures” made entirely out of weeping willow saplings, which Mr. Dougherty apparently obtains from sustainable sources. As part of his artistic concept, Mr. Dougherty seeks to replicate natural cycles of birth, decay and rebirth while recalling forms such as bird nests, basketry and woodland dwellings. The shapes evoke the French haystacks that served as the subject of Claude Monet’s serial paintings in 1890 -91.

Viewed from the exterior, the constructions appear to be several tepee-like forms arrayed on a diagonal and occasionally pierced with ovoid openings at different heights. The first element I encountered (closest to the street intersection) had openings on opposite sides and vertically offset, so that you can look through one opening, see the interior and then see through the second opening. As you walk past the long sides, you observe that Mr. Dougherty has deliberately left gaps of varying widths between the elements, allowing you passage (albeit torturous in some instances) into the series of interior “rooms” within.

To me, the spatial effect is evocative of Richard Serra’s large scale, sheet steel sculptures, notably The Matter of Time installation at Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. In 1998 I viewed a Serra installation at Los Angeles Geffen Contemporary at the Contemporary Museum of Art and experienced similar sensations of altered spatial perception based upon scale, distance between raw steel surfaces and offset openings between steel plates. I very nearly bowled poor Frank Gehry over (he is quite diminutive; I am not) when we both turned a corner right at the gap between Serra’s steel hedgerows of his Torqued Ellipses piece. Gehry also served as the architect for the Geffen Contemporary and I reveled in the moment knowing that the architect was experiencing and appreciating the work of an artist that he clearly admires.

During my second visit to “Double take” to photograph the work, a mother and her two young children joined me. The children were captivated by the piece and moved in and out of the various spaces with glee and delight in their voices. They were also unabashed about using the circular “portholes” as a means of entry and egress. They experienced the scale, light quality, transparency and enclosure sleight of hand Mr. Dougherty embedded into the installation with just the right balance of awe, delight and wonder that I think he intended.

Read more about Patrick Dougherty and Double Take on the P.A. Center for the Arts website:


Read an interview with Richard Serra about the 1998 Geffen Contemporary installation here:


State Appeals Court rules S.F. Condominium Owners may sue Architects

S.F Chronicle Staff Writer Bob Egelko reports on the ruling handed down by California State Court of Appeals that allows a lawsuit previously filed by the Beacon Residential Community Association (“BRCA”) to proceed following its dismissal by Superior Court.

600 California St with 345 California St beyond

San Francisco Skyline November 2011

The luxury Beacon complex located at 250 and 260 King Street is the subject of the lawsuit. Completed in 2005, the building allegedly suffers from multiple design and construction defects, including inadequate fire separations, inadequately designed and poorly functioning heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, defective window design, water infiltration and structural cracks.

The original trier of fact determined that the individual condominium owners had no legal basis to pursue claims against the architects. The architects, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and HKS, Inc. had full service contracts with the project developers, including construction administration. Since industry standard architectural agreements between architects and developers typically include protection against third party claims, and the condominium owners have no privity of contract with the architects, the court determined that the architects could not be sued. More explicitly, the court ruled that the architects had no duty of care to plaintiff BRCA based upon their complaint of negligent design and premised that the architects had no control over the construction of the design.

The State Court of Appeals has reversed the lower court’s decision. As part of their ruling, the Court of Appeals asserts that the architects could reasonably foresee that their designs and recommendations to the developer about design modifications (including, apparently, eliminating operable windows as a cost saving/scope reduction) would impact the future owners of individual condominium units. The Court of Appeals also weighed the fact that the architects were involved throughout construction administration and was reasonably informed about how the developer was constructing the project.

Most importantly, the Court of Appeals draws a distinction between limitation of contractual liability and statutory duty of care for the architects. In their opinion, the Court of Appeals notes, “While a duty of care arising from contract may perhaps be contractually limited, a duty of care imposed by law cannot simply be disclaimed.”

Read the entire article here:


Read the actual ruling here:


Harnessing the Power of Unfiltered Thoughts: Science links Creativity and Mental Illness

The BBC News Online’s Health Editor Michelle Roberts recently authored an article about recent findings by scientists closely linking elements of creativity with the symptoms of mental illness, including bipolar disorder and autism. As part of a study with nearly one million people, Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute identified traits such as the restrictive and intense interests of a person with autism or the manic drive of someone afflicted with bipolar disorder that might spark the focus and “different” thinking necessary to achieve an artistic or creative breakthrough.

Artwork by Craig N. Purcell 1998

Portrait of Jeffrey Luney circa 1998, mixed media artwork by Craig Purcell

Lead researcher Dr. Simon Kyaga with the Karolinska Institute observed that the study’s findings may shed new light on treatment methods for mental illness and suggests that certain traits might in fact be desirable.

Overall, people in creative professions are not necessarily more susceptible to mental illnesses, but are more likely to have a relative with a disorder, including anorexia and even autism. Writers were found to have a higher risk for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, unipolar depression and substance abuse. Photographers and dancers are also apparently susceptible to bipolar disorder.

The BBC previously published an article by Michelle Roberts exploring recent previous scientific studies conducted by the Karolinska Institute of the human brain’s thalamus region and how creative people and the mentally ill share similar traits relative to their lack of dopamine receptors. Associate Professor Fredrik Ullen discovered that people who scored highest on tests for “divergent thought” also tended to have lower concentrations of dopamine or “D2” receptors within their thalamus region, as do schizophrenics. The thalamus effectively serves as the network relay center for the brain, receiving and filtering signals prior to sending them along to the cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for reasoning and cognition. Professor Ullen hypothesizes that the lower density of D2 receptors is responsible for sending a barrage of signals to the cortex of creative persons and schizophrenics, leading to oftentimes unexpected and occasionally disturbing thoughts. Professor Ullen also believes that this can lead to the unusual and unorthodox thoughts that lead to creative problem solving and artistic breakthroughs.

As one-time University of Virginia attendee Edgar Allen Poe once observed, “Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence.” Or as recording artist Paul Simon famously sang, “Still crazy after all these years.”

Read the entire article here:


Read the related article “Creative Minds mimic Schizophrenia” here:



In Praise of the Tactile – Knobs and Tape still rule High Fidelity Recording

The BBC recently featured an article about the continuing preference of select recording industry professionals for using old-fashioned recording equipment in music studios. Recording engineer Peter Mew from the famous Abbey Road Studios in London interviewed for the article cited the use of a Neumann U47 microphone from the 1950’s that features a gritty, almost distorted sound as being a leading example of recording artists’ preference for old equipment.

Ampex ATR 102

Photograph of Ampex ATR 102

The article also features the Ampex ATR 102, a recording machine utilizing audiotape that was discontinued in 1982. The machine can make use of two different tape widths. There are technicians specializing in the repair and reconditioning of these machines because of their incredible recording capability. Modern recording engineers using digital recording have been known to transfer their works to the Ampex ATR 102’s for the final mastering because nothing can match the tape according to Tim Vine-Lott with Air Studios.

San Francisco has its own studio specializing in analog recording equipment, Tiny Telephone. http://www.tinytelephone.com/

Not surprisingly, in a city dedicated to handcrafted everything, Tiny Telephone’s equipment array includes two Ampex ATR 102 mix down decks.

So in a manner analogous to the incomparable anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci being compared with modern radiological imaging, recording and mastering engineers still value the tactility and hand crafting of old-fashioned mixing boards and tape recorders from the late Twentieth Century.

Read the entire article here:


New Physical Address for the Abraxas Team

As of June 1st, 2012 Abraxas Architecture has moved offices to:
2 Embarcadero Center, Suite 2910
San Francisco, CA 94111 .
Please update your contacts accordingly! Our Website has already been changed to reflect our new location. In our new home we are sharing space with our affiliate, Brookwood Group.
The location comes with a stunning view of the TransAmerica pyramid and down town San Francisco and a elegant build out.

Exciting new opportunities ahead for Abraxas!

The Seal of the Great City and COunty of San Francisco We are proud to announce that Abraxas Architecture is now certified as a Local Business Enterprise (LBE) as well as a Micro-Business Enterprise with the City of San Francisco.

We are confident that these new certifications will help our efforts to win new business from the City and from private companies interested in maintaining a local connection and obtaining the individualized care and attentiveness that comes with working with a small company. Abraxas has built its success based upon providing highly-focused client service tailored to the client’s specific requirements.

Our certification with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission took a number of months but was necessary to establish our eligibility as a LBE. The City of San Francisco maintains specific sub-contracting goals for construction projects related to our geographical location and small size. The certification process included a visit to our offices by a an HRC staff member and an extensive review of our business records.

We are very pleased about achieving our LBE and Micro-Business Enterprise certification by the City of San Francisco and look forward to keeping you informed about our ongoing business development and contract awards on our website and blog.

Blog Like You Give a Damn

Late last month Architecture for Humanity released the second edition of their book, “Design Like you give a Damn” which includes two articles by our very own Rebecca Book. The book is imagined as a handbook for architects and designers who strive to build a better future. Inside you will find over a hundred inspiring projects that illustrate that good design is a necessity and a valuable tool that can save lives, not merely a luxury for those who can afford it. While the book is written by professionals and designed to be used as a tool by those engaged in humanitarian work, the writing style is accessible and the images are appealing to anyone with an interest in design or international aid.
Rebecca’s contributions to the book include a piece on the water ‘bladders’ used by Oxfam to distribute clean water to communities torn apart by 2010 Earthquake in Haiti, and a piece on the ‘Rainwater HOG’ designed and marketed by Sally Dominguez to make collecting and storing rainwater accessible and practical to urban residents. I preparation for writing these articles she interviewed the designers and manufacturers of these products as well as aid workers who had experience in implementing them and the people who had benefited from their thoughtful design and timely implementation.
The Book has benefited from much critical acclaim, reviews in The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Wall Street Journal as well as a shout out from Brad Pitt.

For more information on the book, and architecture for humanity, please visit their website here: http://architectureforhumanity.org/programs/design-like-you-give-a-damn-2

Or buy the book on Amazon and see for yourself: http://www.amazon.com/Design-Like-You-Give-Damn/dp/0810997029/ref=lp_B007Z67KV4_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335997534&sr=1-1

The Architect’s Powers of Perception: The Anatomical Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci


skull drawing courtesy www.drawingsofleonardo.org

Three Dimensional Rendering based upon Anatomical Observation

In an article authored by Robin Banerji and an accompanying video narrated by Martin Clayton of the Royal Collection, the anatomical drawings prepared by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci are compared to digital drawings derived from modern radiological imaging for overall accuracy. Nearly 90 of da Vinci’s anatomical drawings are going on exhibit at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace this week. According to experts, including Peter Abrahams, professor of clinical anatomy at Warwick University in the UK, the accuracy of Leonardo’s images are equal to virtually anything that can be produced today.

At the time of his death in 1519, da Vinci had compiled numerous sketches and detailed drawings of his anatomical observations, based upon his eyewitness viewing of numerous dissections at the University of Pavia by contemporary academicians and medical doctors. Among his two dimensional drawings, modern scientists marvel at the accuracy of his depiction of the human spine, wherein he captures not only the delicate curvature but also the intricate interlocking of the individual vertebrae.

Not surprisingly, Leonardo’s knowledge and training as an architect and engineer are believed to have contributed to the astonishing level of accuracy and structural/mechanical thrust of his delineation skills. “This mechanistic approach, this engineering-approach, has only become really popular in the field of surgery within the last 50 or 60 years,” according to Professor Abrams. Unfortunately, his quest for knowledge directly conflicted with religious and political beliefs of his era, and much of his research, including the role of the heart in the circulatory system, were lost until later findings by Harvey and others.

Read the entire article here:


Skull drawing courtesy of the drawingsofleonardo.org

Designer on Trial: German Architect for Hollywood Hills Structure arraigned for Involuntary Manslaughter of LAFD Firefighter

862-Safety Warranty Tag HWI FiThe Los Angeles Times reports that Gerhard Albert Becker, 48, was due for arraignment Wednesday 15 February 2012 in Los Angeles County Superior Court. In their original report, the Los Angeles Times indicated that Becker is suspected of being professionally liable for certain design errors and omissions, including an 18 foot wide “Fire Trough” that somehow creates an immense indoor fire pit, which Los Angeles Fire Department investigators have tied back to the condition leading to the death of an LAFD firefighter in February, 2011. Based upon the results of a nearly yearlong investigation, the Los Angeles Police Department served an arrest warrant on Becker upon his arrival at LAX from an extensive stay overseas in Germany and Spain.

Although the original article lacks many details, Abraxas Architecture has now reviewed the legal pleadings and court documents published by the Los Angeles Times this morning, 16 February 2011. According to the Search Warrant and Affidavit, there were four fireplaces installed on the third floor following the final inspection by the Los Angeles Building Department Mechanical Inspector. The interior construction of the fireplaces, which by code are supposed to be constructed of non-combustible materials, consisted of ceramic tile thin set over conventional gypsum board over wood studs. Gas lines were brought into these non-conforming fireplaces for use with gas logs.

According to research conducted by LAPD detectives about the product and interviews with the fireplace manufacturer representatives, the units installed by Becker following final inspection are not intended or warranted for indoor use, the units lacked the minimum clearance from combustible materials required, the housing for the burners was constructed of combustible materials and the units were not adequately vented.

Based upon the facts presented in the Los Angeles Times article and more importantly, the Search Warrant and Affidavit, it appears that Mr. Becker was not only cognizant of manufacturer’s requirements for minimum clearance separation between fireplaces and combustible materials, the need for non-combustible materials within the firebox, requirements for adequate ventilation and their proper and safe use being restricted to strictly outdoor installations, but that he knowingly delayed installing the fireplaces until after final inspection because otherwise the Los Angeles Department of Building Safety would not sign off for a certificate of occupancy. Because of the injuries to several firefighters and the completely unjustifiable death of another, the consequences of Mr. Becker’s actions as a design professional and constructor transcend mere errors and omissions and cross into the realm of alleged criminal negligence.

Read the follow on article with link to court documents here:


Read the entire original article here:


Additional coverage at the LA Weekly here: