Buildings that send a shiver of ecstasy

LISA ROCHON September 12, 2009

Critical ingredients for a rave: hot weather, big crowds and plenty of ecstasy. It took a trip to Rome to remind me that an intense immersion in art and architecture can provoke a rush of warm feelings: a sense of being overwhelmed and amazed, a state that can release angst, bring on happiness, even heart palpitations.

Which is what I felt, gazing last week at Bernini's irreverent marble sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, in which a woman arches backward, captured in a state of high arousal, within the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome. Teresa was a Carmelite nun who revealed a frolicsome, divine vision in which a young, attractive angel pierces the woman's heart and even her entrails with a long spear of gold with a hot-fired point. The pain was both great and sweet - a spiritual sensation, explained Teresa, though the body had its share in it.

Depending on your reading of it, Teresa's description - Is this about an orgasm or spirituality? - underlines the sophisticated marketing strategies put to work by the popes of Renaissance and baroque Rome. To further the cause of Catholicism, they commissioned artists and architects to express the raptures of the human body within soaring, marble-caked places of worship. The idea was to make a deep impression on their Christian converts, wow them with architecture, and keep them intrigued enough to keep them coming back for more.

Bernini even sculpted his arts patrons on either side of the arched Teresa, placing them in theatrical balconies as if they'd paid to enjoy a special show. And it worked. Teresa's ecstasy, sustained over the last 350 years and experienced by people the world over, makes the impact of the little coloured pill popped at dance clubs a trifling matter.

Through the ages, the world's most fabulous salesmen have been seducing the audience. The ancient Greeks were onto it. For them, ekstasis meant "standing outside of oneself." The popes delighted in marble, in wild animal patterns, and approved the cannibalization of many of the monuments from Roman antiquity to achieve special, hallucinatory effects within their new places of worship.

Fast-forward through time and discover the same kind of interest in capturing ecstasy in architecture. In the 1980s, Trump dazzled and amazed the public by building a 58-storey luxury tower, on Manhattan's 5th Avenue, of dark bronze glass laced with dollops of brass and gold. Inside, the atrium entices shoppers with a five-storey waterfall, walls of pink marble and a stacked zigzag of glass elevators. Yes, the designs of the baroque church of Santa Maria della Vittoria and the pleated glass Trump Tower are vastly different, but the pitch is exactly the same: Give yourself over to the rapture and, OMG!, become a true believer, or find the exit sign.

Experiencing ecstasy in architecture depends, too, on other unexpected forces coming into play. That there was a full moon hanging like a golden face next to St. Peter's Basilica made standing outside in the Belvedere Courtyard of the Vatican a magical evening (besides the fact that the Vatican had opened its high-security doors to allow The Globe and Mail Mediterranean-cruise crowd of about 350 people inside after hours.) That we entered the Sistine Chapel in half-darkness allowed more time to feel the dimensions of the space, how it was originally conceived in the late 1400s to mimic the dimensions of the biblical Temple of Solomon, with the length of the chapel three times its width and twice its height.

When the lights went up, the ceiling by Michelangelo monopolized my eyes. I searched for the feet of Jonah, which dangle effortlessly in a remarkable show of foreshortening, and then breathed in the lush colours of the orange, lavender and pink robes worn by the artist's monumental figures.

I spent much time looking up at Michelangelo's greatest promotion of women's rights - how Eve, gorgeous and curvy, is shown in the Temptation and Expulsion panel not as the protagonist behind the fall of man but as a reluctant participant. Contrary to the Bible and the teachings of the day, Michelangelo portrays Adam as reaching greedily for the forbidden fruit. Some guests found seats, others stood. Being inside the Sistine Chapel was already remarkable. But when a small choir filed in and started to sing the soaring harmonies of Palestrina's Kyrie, that's when it was possible to know ecstasy in architecture.

You don't necessarily need to travel to Rome to get on a delirious wave and go for a ride, but it's a fine place to begin. Where have you found moments of ecstasy within the architecture of Canada? I'm interested to know and welcome your opinions.

My list is long and rambling and far from finished. It includes old wooden barns with shafts of light descending through their exposed, dying rafters. Ice-fishing huts on frozen lakes, for what they express about solitude and pain. Frank Gehry's Galleria Italia at the Art Gallery of Ontario, because we can stand within the embrace of the soaring, curved timbers and look out on the crushing, restless pace of the city. All of Arthur Erickson's monumental or intimate courtyards on the West Coast.

Dan Hanganu/Provencher Roy's Pointe-à-Caillière Museum in Montreal for architecture that seduces us to want to travel back through time and to look out at a renewed waterfront at the edge of the St. Lawrence River. The 900 ancient petroglyph figures etched with grace and exquisite graphic energy into a surprising hump of white marble, located deep in a forest about 50 kilometres north of Peterborough. The roiling, sensuous St. Mary's Church by Douglas Cardinal, set on the banal flats outside of Red Deer, Alta. The Toronto-Dominion banking pavilion by Mies van der Rohe in downtown Toronto, for its exquisite, mathematical rigour and the flowers arranged in glass bowls according to the original 1960s specifications of the architect.

Also, elementary-school gyms built of concrete block across the nation. They're functional, airless and fairly ugly. But none of that seems to matter whenever children assemble there to sing. I bet that's true in Rome, too.