Rouen Revisited

An interactive art installation by
Golan Levin (Interval Research Corporation) and
Paul Debevec (University of California at Berkeley)
July 1996


Synthetic views of the Rouen Cathedral derived (respectively) from:
photographs taken in January 1996; a painting by Claude Monet, made in 1894-95;
and photographs taken in the mid-1890's. All are shown from the same point of view.

Table of Contents


Between 1892 and 1894, the French Impressionist Claude Monet produced nearly 30 oil paintings of the main façade of the Rouen Cathedral in Normandy. Fascinated by the play of light and atmosphere over the Gothic church, Monet systematically painted the cathedral at different times of day, from slightly different angles, and in varied weather conditions. Each painting, quickly executed, offers a glimpse into a narrow slice of time and mood.

We are interested in widening these slices, extending and connecting the dots occupied by Monet's paintings in the multidimensional space of turn-of-the-century Rouen. In Rouen Revisited, we present an interactive kiosk in which users are invited to explore the façade of the Rouen Cathedral, as Monet might have painted it, from any angle, time of day, and degree of atmospheric haze. Users can contrast these re-rendered paintings with similar views synthesized from century-old archival photographs, as well as from recent photographs that reveal the scars of a century of weathering and war.

Rouen Revisited is our homage to the hundredth anniversary of Monet's cathedral paintings. Like Monet's series, our installation is a constellation of impressions, a document of moments and percepts played out over space and time. In our homage, we extend the scope of Monet's study to where he could not go, bringing forth his object of fascination from a hundred feet in the air and across a hundred years of history.

The Experience

The Rouen Revisited interactive kiosk allows its users to explore eight dimensions of the façade of the Rouen Cathedral in Normandy. We can examine the cathedral in various levels of fog; at different times of day; from different points of view on a three-dimensional viewing surface—and lastly, along three dimensions of interpretation and media: namely, as the cathedral appeared to photographers a hundred years ago, as it appears today, and as it would appear if Monet's impressionist paintings of it were aligned with and projected onto its surface.

Many more ways of exploring and understanding the Gothic cathedral are afforded by moving between and around these modes. We can observe the many ways in which the cathedral has changed in the past century, for example, by moving between the re-renderings of the old photographs and those of the new photographs. We can come to an understanding of which geometric details Monet chose to focus on, by moving between views of his paintings and the historic photographs from the same time period. We can come to understand how the play of light at a given time of day may have inspired Monet to paint the colors and textures he did—by moving between a painting and the new photograph which shares the same time of day. And, when we scrub through the time-series of Monet paintings, we have a unique opportunity to access the entire set of Monet's Cathedral paintings, and gain an appreciation for the both the range of Monet's exploration as well as the constraints within which he chose to work. Finally, by changing the time of day and our point of view around the cathedral, we may derive a sense of place—a feeling for the Rouen Cathedral as a real physical artifact, and a sense of the passage of a day in Rouen.

Rouen Revisited is an artifact about artifacts about an artifact—an interactive and open-ended interpretation of paintings and photographs, which are themselves interpretations of an ancient Gothic artwork. Ultimately, the interpretation which Rouen Revisited affords is a dynamic one, forged in the mind of the user when she creates, using the multidimensional interface, her own Rouen Cathedral composition.

The Presentation

Rouen Revisited is presented in an arch-shaped maple cabinet, seven feet three inches tall. Its front face is articulated by three features: Near the top, a backlit stained-glass rosette (whose design is based on the rosette of the Rouen Cathedral) acts as a beacon for passers-by. Below that, a 17-inch color monitor, configured on its side, provides users with a view onto the cathedral's surface. Finally, a projecting wedge-shaped block at waist-level provides the interface controls for operating the kiosk.

Users explore the surface of the Rouen Cathedral by touching one of three force-sensitive regions exposed within a brass plate mounted on the interface wedge. Each region affords the user with control of a different dimension of the façade:

  • Touching the corners of the upper, triangular region of the brass plate allows users to select between renderings of Monet paintings, archival photographs from the 1890's, or new photographs from 1996. Dragging one's finger along this groove creates a blend between these modes.

  • Moving one's finger left and right inside the central, upside-down-T-shaped region of the brass control plate allows users to change the time of day. Moving one's finger up and down the vertical groove of this control changes the level of fog. This control is disabled for the archival photographs, for which time-series and fog-series source stills were unavailable. Nevertheless, this control is active for the new photographs and Monet paintings, and permits users to draw comparisons between the actual appearance of the cathedral (given certain lighting conditions) and Monet's interpretation of the cathedral so lit.

  • Dragging one's finger across the rectangular, bottom region of the brass plate allows users to change their point of view around the Rouen Cathedral.

The Technology

To produce renderings of the cathedral's façade from arbitrary angles, we needed an accurate, three-dimensional model of the cathedral. For this purpose, we made use of new modeling and rendering techniques, developed by Paul Debevec at the University of California at Berkeley, that allow three-dimensional models of architectural scenes to be constructed from a small number of ordinary photographs. We traveled to Rouen in January 1996, where, in addition to taking a set of photographs from which we could generate the model, we obtained reproductions of Monet's paintings as well as antique photographs of the cathedral as it would have been seen by Monet.

Once the 3D model was built, the photographs and Monet paintings were registered with and projected onto the 3D model. Re-renderings of each of the projected paintings and photographs were then generated from hundreds of points of view; renderings of the cathedral in different atmospheric conditions and at arbitrary times of day were derived from our own time-lapse photographs of the cathedral and by interpolating between the textures of Monet's original paintings. The model recovery and image rendering was accomplished with custom graphics software on a Silicon Graphics Indigo2. The Rouen Revisited interface runs in a Macromedia Director projector on a 300-MHz Pentium PC, and allows unencumbered exploration of more than 12,000 synthesized renderings.

The execution of Rouen Revisited entailed more than half a dozen novel technical achievements. The most basic of these were the techniques of view-dependent texture-mapping, photogrammetric modeling, and model-based stereo that Paul Debevec developed in his Berkeley Ph.D. thesis. Other achievements, however, were more specific to the Rouen Revisited installation itself. A brief survey of the technological accomplishments in Rouen Revisited can be found here.

Further information about the modeling and rendering algorithms used in Rouen Revisited can be found in:

Images from Rouen Revisited

The unwieldy size of the Rouen Revisited image database (nearly 3 gigabytes of renderings) prohibits us from creating an interactive, web-based version of the project at this time. In this section of the Rouen site, we instead attempt to convey the experience made possible by Rouen Revisited in a compact, easily-transmissable and (for now) non-interactive form. In addition to presenting still images, we have also converted select paths through the multidimensional space of possible renderings into short animations and digital videos. The animations are presented as animated GIFs, reduced to one-ninth of their original size and dithered from 24-bit color down to a browser-safe 8-bit palette. Viewing these animations requires a Netscape 2.0 or better browser. The Quicktime and AVI videos are similarly reduced in size, and additionally compressed with the Apple Video or Microsoft Video compression formats.

To the animations and stills.

Artist Biographies

Golan Levin is an artist and designer of artifacts and experiences. Golan completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, between which he was a member of the research staff at Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto. Golan is interested in the design of expressive instruments, tools and toys for producing and playing with media.

Paul Debevec received degrees in Math and Computer Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1992, and his Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley. For his doctoral thesis, Paul developed a method of modeling and rendering architectural scenes photorealistically from ordinary photographs by synthesizing techniques from computer vision with those of computer graphics. Paul is interested in continuing to capture, visualize, and interpret the world in new and creative ways through novel photographic techniques.

A photograph of the authors with the Rouen Revisited kiosk, August 1996.
A photograph of the authors in front of the Rouen Cathedral, January 1996.

Exhibition Information

In October 2000 the Rouen Revisted installation became a part of the permanent collection of the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York City. Prior to this, Rouen Revisited was presented at the following venues:


Rouen Revisited was conceived and developed by Golan Levin and Paul Debevec. The kiosk's maple cabinet was constructed by Warren H. Shaw, furniture-maker, of South San Francisco. The stained-glass rosette was hand-made by David Kaczor, glass artist, of Mountain View, California. The brass interface gate was machined by Shane Levin, president of the HAP Engraving Company, New York City. Invaluable suggestions and assistance with the presentation design were provided by Joe Ansel of Ansel Associates, and Charles "Bud" Lassiter of Interval Research Corporation. Scott Snibbe and Geoff Smith provided key software assistance; additional hardware, electronics and construction support were lent by Scott Wallters, Chris $eguine and Bernie Lubell.

Rouen Revisited would not have been possible without the generous support of Paul Allen, David Liddle, and Noel Hirst; Michael Naimark, Bud Lassiter, Sally Rosenthal, Carol Moran, Marc Davis, Frank Crow, Stephan Gehring, Marie-Dominique Baudot, Laurence Shelvin, and Mark Keen; Jitendra Malik and Camillo J. Taylor; Shane Levin; and Joe Ansel.

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Exhibition placard (514k).