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B.C. artist uses light and shadow to create giant scenes of nature on Amazon warehouse walls

The images of mountains, forest and ocean on the walls of the warehouse are created using sheets of anodized aluminum with thousands of precision-cut holes about the size of a quarter.

The towering walls of the new Amazon Distribution Centre on the grounds of Victoria International Airport came alive this month.

The plain concrete facade now sparkles with mountain and ocean scenes — Mount Baker, the Olympic and Beaufort ranges, the Malahat, Mount Arrowsmith and the low forested hills of the Saanich Peninsula, all highlighted against a glimmering Salish Sea.

It’s an ever-changing display brought to life by natural light and shadows — the work of an artist who was raised in Victoria but has never before had the chance to display his ground-breaking technology here.

Roderick Quin, the principal of Vancouver-based Ombrae Studios, has architectural art displays on 90 buildings around the globe — Singapore, Los Angeles, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Christchurch — as well as locations in Vancouver and Edmonton and across the United States and Mexico.

“It’s wonderful to see it,” said the 71-year-old as he watched a mix of sun and overcast conditions play on the pixelated surface of Amazon’s Cascadia Junction distribution centre.

“It’s great to have it here now than earlier because I’ve got all this history that brought me back here,” said Quin, who grew up in the Gorge and Lakehill areas before taking off to art school and Vancouver’s booming film industry in the 1980s and 1990s.

The “sculptural images” on the walls of the warehouse are sheets of anodized aluminum with thousands of precision-cut holes called 3D Optical Tiles, about the size of a quarter.

Some areas of the panels are left untouched, some are punched out completely and others are partially punched — with those tiles angled in different ways to catch the light and shadows that create the overall images.

Together, the 595 panels — each measuring about two feet wide and eight feet high — create a 35-foot-high, 462-foot-long array of mountains, forests and ocean.

The image travels over three edges of the south- and east-facing sides of the building, covering just over 14,000 square feet.

Unlike a digital display assembled on a light-emitting screen, the Ombrae tiles use software and precision cutting to create images that are light reflective.

The surfaces respond to changing lighting conditions in the natural environment and the changing angles of view by the observer.

The mountain and ocean scenes, watched over an hour-long period, constantly changed in grey scale. During cloudy periods, the ocean and mountains shifted from dark to light, and when the sun broke through, sharp hits of bright silver sparkled over the trees and parts of the oceans and mountains, creating mists and even a whale blow on the water.

As colourful spring and summer sunsets arrive, Quin said, the images will contain splashes of orange, blue and magenta.

“It creates visually dynamic results for the viewer … like a real object in real time and in real space,” he said, noting the angles change as the sun tracks around. “The pixels are stationary but the light that’s falling on them is moving across, so any angle of reflection to your eye is also changing. There’s these infinite number of relationships of how you view it at any given moment.”

Before any tiles are punched, Quin’s team does a “sun-path analysis” of the location in the initial design process. That analysis can take several months.

Matt Woolsey, president of Edmonton-based York Realty Inc., which built the Amazon warehouse, said the company wanted “to give something back to community” with the Ombrae art installation.

“Big-box warehouses like this can be controversial,” Woolsey said of the 150,000-square-foot structure on seven acres. “It’s such a large canvas, so we wanted to do something that was beautiful and unique.”

Woolsey said discussions with noted Montreal design firm Lemay led York to Quin’s Ombrae. York Realty had also been aware of Quin’s work in Edmonton’s Ice District.

The art project integrated with solar panels cost York about $2 million, he said.

Quin’s idea for optical tiles sprouted during his years at Emily Carr College and the University of British Columbia when the first computers were being used in art.

He was asked to be part of an experimental program at UBC in 1993, bringing artists together with technologists. It got Quin thinking about how he could use a sculptor’s approach to creating images for buildings.

While working in and out of the film business, he opened a small special-effects studio in downtown Vancouver, where he thought of developing optical tiles. He made a sheered cylinder, put it in the roof of his studio and photographed it in the sun. “I found: ‘Oh, that’s grey-scale. … If I multiply this one pixel by 10,000 and I can control their positions, I can make an image.”

But there were no platforms available to commercialize his idea — the technology and the tools to manufacture it were years away. So he went back to the movies, working in special effects and set design for elaborate productions like the X-Men series, Fantastic Four, Chronicles of Riddick and Alive, where he honed his sculptural skills building complicated sets.

“By working on major Hollywood films, I had the unique opportunity to design and build exotic structures — mountainsides, glaciers, forests, automobiles, spaceships and distant science fiction cities and worlds,” he said.

He continued to pursue his passion for architecture and sculpture with personal projects — merging movie experience with architectural public art.

An interest in digital photography, optics and acoustics started to focus Quin’s research on the interaction of light on surfaces. “It was then that I bridged the analogue and digital with the creation of a 3D pixelated surface that could create sculptural images with optical tiles.”

Today, Quin’s patented technology for optical tiles is moving into new fields and mediums.

While architectural displays represent the majority of Ombrae’s business, the tiles and software to engineer them are being used in fabrics, metals and stone, and other materials.

The company is working with a Rolex partner in Italy, using optical tile cutting on a nano scale to create images on watch faces.

There are projects with Lotus to make car bodies more air dynamic, and a contract with Speedo to use optical tiles in streamlining competitive swimsuits. The company is prototyping its technology to be used in fashion and jewelry. Some of its other partners include Louis Vutton, Lululemon, Fossil and MGM Grand.

“Ombrae can be rendered in any material,” said Quin. “There’s nothing like it in the world, really.”

The company is working with scientists and engineers in Istanbul to research use of the Ombrae system in building facades to mitigate energy loss. Quin said initial results indicate Ombrae facades could deliver a 40% better performance than conventional mechanical air conditioning.

“The precision, programming, modelling, the type of tools … it’s all there now. The machines that make this have only been practical on a commercial level for 10 to 15 years,” said Quin.

He said the studio’s strength is with his chief designers.

Brian van Zanden is the technical director and develops the tools and methods for generating the Ombrae surfaces.

The technical and creative artist has worked on blockbuster films such as Man of Steel, Godzilla and the Oscar-winning Life of Pi. Communications designer Jared Korb is an environmental graphic designer and works with architects, interior designers and developers that bring spaces to life.

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