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Feature: A celebration in projection

Feature: A celebration in projection

Feature: A celebration in projection

Aachen Cathedral celebrated 40 years as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an architectural projection mapping display. James Cooke takes a look

Aachen Cathedral is one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe. Construction began in 796AD by order of Charles I, also known as the emperor Charlemagne, and the cathedral was consecrated nine years later in 805. Charles I was then buried at the site after his death in 814.

The building blends Carolingian, Ottonian and Gothic architectural styles, and stands as an impressive landmark in the German city of Aachen. With such a unique aesthetic and rich in history, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared Aachen Cathedral a World Heritage Site in 1978. This means that the house of worship is conserved for posterity, protecting the site from trespassing, unmonitored, uncontrolled and unrestricted access, as well as the threat of local administrative negligence.

Four decades have passed since Aachen Cathedral became a World Heritage Site and, to celebrate, the church’s history was projection mapped on the building’s architecture in Der Dom Leuchtet (The Bright – or Luminous – Cathedral), which was held over the course of nine nights and attracted more than 40,000 spectators. Christoph Hillen from Aachen’s own 3D pixel mapping specialist, bendedPix, produced the conceptual design and animation as well as the pixel mapping work for the project, as it was actually his past work that inspired the celebration for Aachen Cathedral.

‘We produced a very successful mapping project on Aachen’s historical town hall in 2016,’ Hillen recalls. ‘This was how the cathedral got the idea. They also liked the idea that all of the creative work could be done by people actually from Aachen.

‘Our goal was to tell the story of the building, its meaning and importance to history and people from the past until now. We tried to avoid showing the usual mapping effects; instead, every scene has a detailed depiction of one story of the building.’

The projection mapping recounted key moments from the cathedral’s history from its founding by Charlemagne in the eighth century and was used to outline the building’s original structure to highlight its architectural changes. The various events depicted from the cathedral’s 1,200-year lifetime included the Fire of Aachen in 1656, as animated flames climbed the church’s façade. The heavy damage caused to the building during World War II was shown using real photographs accompanied by the sound effects of an air raid siren, followed by an animation to demonstrate the rebuilding efforts.

To bring the building façade to life in a blend of history and animation, Hillen used a disguise 4x4pro media server equipped with quad-DVI VFC cards to deliver content to 14 Christie projectors. ‘disguise had the capability to drive all the outputs, and its QuickCal feature could handle projector calibration on an extremely difficult surface,’ he explains. ‘disguise also gave us a chance to review the design with VR support so we could see the critical 3D parts of the content from different views, which was very helpful.’

The projectors were located on Layher scaffolding that Hillen and his team constructed 100m away from the cathedral. Andre Gross of Publitec installed the disguise server and the Christie projectors onsite, while Matthias Büsching of Power+Radach partnered with bendedPix on the conceptual design and Frank Stumvoll of FreshArt Music Productions composed the accompanying music, which was reinforced by an L-Acoustics Kiva II compact line array system.

‘Publitec supplied its own stock of Christie projectors,’ says Hillen. ‘We needed very bright, professional projectors, and Christie met that need. However, my main specification was for the disguise 4x4pro. disguise is always my first choice because it is very comfortable to handle and it gives me the possibility to see a very good simulation of the animations at all stages of the project. Since release 15 they support VR devices, which is a killer feature to see how it will really look on the side of a building.’

This project wasn’t the first time that Publitec and bendedPix had worked together. ‘I have previously worked on two or three projects with Andre and his team,’ Hillen confirms. ‘They do a very good job and we work together well as a team as we get on personally.’

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the show - Photo courtesy of Aachener Dom/Andreas Steindl
German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the show - Photo courtesy of Aachener Dom/Andreas Steindl

A combination of teamwork and the right technology produced breathtaking results. ‘To see the original church of 800AD was overwhelming,’ says Bernd Büttgens, a spokesperson for the city of Aachen who worked in close cooperation with the cathedral to produce Der Dom Leuchtet. ‘Standing in the courtyard and looking up to see bomber aircraft over Aachen in the World War II was spooky. So many tremendous moments and spotlights: the cathedral as a great organ, The Beatles’ invasion – all that was very impressive. The 3D pixel mapped show gave us the impression of the cathedral growing through the decades, delivering all the dangers and catastrophes that have befallen it.

‘For us it was an artistic and poetic interpretation of our cathedral's history and its importance for Aachen and the people living here over the centuries. The cathedral is our main cultural landmark and tourist attraction. It is the pride of our city and we hold a deep attachment to it. This was a great show that ended with applause each night and has received fantastic reviews in the press and on TV. We are very happy with how the project turned out.’

Equally happy with how the projection mapping show turned out is Hillen, who adds: ‘The audiences gave extremely positive feedback; most of them were deeply impressed. We primarily focused on the content, ensuring that it covered each historical moment of the cathedral’s past, rather than simply creating “cool effects”. This paid off as every single scene and image told a different story from the building’s 1,200-year history.’

With the show selling out every night of its run and everyone impressed with the storytelling visuals enabled by the disguise servers and Christie projectors, Der Dom Leuchtet was not only successful in portraying the annals of Aachen Cathedral, but it also earned a new place in the church’s prestigious history.

This article was first published in the March-April 2019 edition of Worship AVL. Subscribe at

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