Homeless in Vancouver: A 1960s example of bitmap editing

The Regency on West 14th Avenue just east of Granville Street, is a really big apartment building covered from top to bottom in tiny square ceramic tiles. These little tiles run the gamut in colour from yellows through greens to various shades of blue.

The mosaic skin of the building presents smooth colours at a distance but as you get closer they change as the tiles themselves become visible.

It’s the same effect you get walking up to Georges Seurat’s  pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte or looking too closely at a 72- or 96-pixel-per-inch computer display.

How long would it take to teach Photoshop to a Sumerian?

When the Regency was built in 1963, computer graphics were on the sharpest part of the cutting edge of computer sciences. For the most part the only 3D computer models in existence were the room-sized computers themselves.

The Regency looks much like a life-size 3D wireframe model skinned in low-resolution bitmaps—an analog CGI.

The idea of bitmap—images composed of discrete squares of solid colour—and resolution and texture mapping, and a slew of other strategies used in computer graphics were all cherry-picked from thousands of years of real-world technique and experience.

How we create and manipulate our bitmaps has changed profoundly in the last 6,000 years. For instance, we now create them in computers, a kind of Platonic realm of perfect forms.

But the bitmaps themselves—what makes them work for us visually—hasn’t changed a whit in all that time.

Consider any artisan truly skilled in the creation of tile mosaics—they could be from down the street today or from Athens of the fourth Century BCE or even from a Sumerian city circa 4000 BCE.

Cultural and language barriers aside, I think any of them would be perfectly capable of “getting” the fundamental ideas underpinning bitmap image editing in software like Photoshop.

Both the Greek and Sumerian artisan would certainly have been capable of understanding everything involved in creating the mosaic skin covering the Regency.

I, for one, would very much like to have apprenticed with the best of the workers who did the Regency tile work so that I too could understand the art, methodology, and logistics of producing such a gigantic mosaic, especially how they planned such excellent non-repeating stochastic patterns.

They don't make them or clean them like they used to

What science fiction writer William Gibson might describe as “bit-rot”.
Stanley Q. Woodvine

After half a century the Regency is still awesome to behold but it has recently begun to show its age.

Close up, it’s looking pretty grubby and moss is growing unchecked on the southeast edges of the building’s balconies.

A fellow I see in McDonald’s several times each week has lived in the Regency for over 20 years. He tells me the management used to regularly power-wash the whole building with acid. The treatment left the building gleaming like new.

The management stopped acid cleaning the building, according to the resident, at the behest of the City of Vancouver, which said the acid was bad for the environment.

Failing the acid test

I don’t know what kind of acid might have been used. Possibly acetic, which in a concentration of 2 percent is what people are using when they use vinegar. In horticultural concentrations of 20 percent it’s very good at cleaning things and killing weeds (but so is plain vinegar).

Muriatic acid is hydrogen chloride gas dissolved in water, which is hydrochloric acid. It's terribly effective at cleaning masonry, concrete, and unglazed ceramic tile but frankly the “terribly” far outweighs the “effective”.

I’ve read about it being used to clean glazed tile in swimming pools, but that seems absurd as it cleans by etching away the surface, leaving new, clean surface.

It might have been TSP (trisodium phosphate), which isn’t an acid but sadly isn’t good for the environment either in large concentrations—“sadly” because it’s an awesome cleaner. It doesn’t etch and is especially good for cleaning surfaces prior to painting them.

There are very effective, non-acid methods to clean glazed tile such as power-washing with mineral salt or soda but many experts, believe it or not, still swear by water and a scrub brush.

I hope the owners of the Regency come to some solution for cleaning the exterior of their building because it’s got to be cheaper to clean glazed tile than it is to replace it.

Stanley Q. Woodvine
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Jack Dunbar
Condo crazy city council wants it to slide into neglect allowing their developer pals to buy the owners out and demolish it for yet another ugly glass and concrete condo project.
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