Smell is an under-rated sense and one we rarely deploy when thinking about architecture.  We’re trained to think visually, with some understanding of tactile things, too.  Form, scale, mass, light and shade are understood and described in a sophisticated and nuanced way, because we deal with them constantly.

Nevertheless, smell is inescapable.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, growled Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.  That association may never leave American soldiers who served in Vietnam.  Similarly, architecture goes well beyond the visual.

When the exhibition "Beauty and Waste in the Architecture of Herzog & De Meuron" was staged at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in 2005, the architects created a limited edition perfume called Rotterdam, which listed Rhine water, dog, hashish, algae, vin chaud, fur and tangerine amongst its components.  “Since architecture itself cannot be exhibited,” said Jacques Herzog, “we are forever compelled to find substitutes."  So they collaborated with a perfumer to fill that void.

Peter Zumthor also touched on the notion of architecture being broader than that in his RIBA Gold Medal address in 2013. “Architecture is not about form, it is about many other things,” he said. “The light and the use, and the structure, and the shadow, the smell and so on.”  Yet most smells are by-products of something else.  They just happen, rather than being designed.

That’s one difference between buildings and people: people make a conscious decision to smell a particular way.  They design themselves, when it comes to aftershave or perfume.  Today the desire to own a few drops of liquid sophistication is what supports a £15-billion-a-year fragrance industry.  Its results are tangible - often overpowering - yet rather subjective.  Smells aren’t easy to define, beyond a concentration of parts per million (ppm) of many different chemicals in the air. 

Sound, temperature and humidity in the air are measured in a scientific way; but smell itself is fugitive and the palette, or perhaps palate, required to describe it requires discrimination.  It’s defined using a series of words: the whisky nose, the wine buff, the perfume connoisseur each have their exclusive vocabulary.

Perhaps it should be simpler; after all, smell is universal.  Whether the scents which take you back to childhood such the cedarwood of a sharpened pencil, or deep in a forest after the rain with wet moss, pine needles and lots of oxygen released into the air, smell is about analogy, and perfumers design scents to evoke these and many other different things.

In fact, scent is literally a chemical analogue of a real thing.  Sea salt and ozone are evoked using calzone, the strong scent of the bitter orange is represented by petitgrain, and the muskiness of a furry creature crawling from its den comes from castoreum or civet.  There are also the manly smells which work their way into cologne: the aromatics and aldehydes in whisky; or the leathery smell of upholstery and farriers’ shops which inspired “cuir de russie”.

Buildings might also be designed to smell a particular way - if you lined a room with cedarwood panels or floored it with linoleum for the express purpose of spreading the material’s scent.  We’re drawn to organic smells, which are wired into our ancestral memory.  We feel an affinity towards timber smells - oak tannin, pinewood, cedar - and earth smells such as terracotta, stucco and concrete.  Perhaps there’s a receptor in our brain which recalls the smells of medieval houses, the huts before them, then way back to prehistoric caves and forest shelters.

Although we consider that an unoccupied space is empty – aside from its furniture and fittings, the mass of air inside the building picks up aroma because when you sense a smell, you’re actually breathing in molecules of the building material themselves.  You may even savour the smell of new buildings.  Outside, the smell of wet subsoil and the acrid exhaust of a heavy plant, plus sharp bursts of burning powder from the Hilti gun.

Inside, freshly-ripped softwood gives you the crisp smell of pine as the resin oozes from its sap, then there’s the sharp, limey, bitter smell of new concrete as it cures, and the complex formaldehydes of carpet tiles as they off-gas.  Once occupied, the building’s materials settle into the background, providing what perfumers call a “base note” - while a shrill mixture of furniture polish, toilet cleaner and air freshener hits you when you come through the door.

Those are the scents of individual buildings, which combine into a city-wide smell.  That can be just as distinctive and as someone else said, Paris is the capital of smell.  Balzac, perhaps: “Tout parfum est une combinaison d’air et de lumiere.”  Many of the worlds’ great perfume houses grew up there, in grand townhouses off Hausmann’s boulevardes.  From the giants of perfumery owned by LVMH, to the niche firms such as Creed or Diptyque, to the candlemakers, Cire Trudon.  Given the Parisian sensibility, it’s no surprise that Parisians are stimulated by the noxious as well as the sweet. 

One of the most unflattering descriptions was La Morandière’s description of the Palace of Versailles - “The cesspool that adjoins the palace, the park, the gardens, even the castle catches one’s breath with its stinking odours. The paths, the courtyards, the wings of the buildings, the hallways are filled with urine and fecal matter even at the very feet of the ministerial wing, a butcher bleeds and grills his pork every morning, the St. Cloud Avenue is covered with sewer water and dead cats.″

Yet you can combat the latter quite easily.  During the Middle Ages, herbs such as chamomile, meadowsweet and lavender were strewn on the ground to give off a sweet smell when trampled, which grew into the Corpus Domini ritual of the flower-carpeted street.  Sweet woodruff was hung from kirk rafters, rosemary was burned in hospitals to purify the air, and fires of juniper and laurel branches were lit in city squares during epidemics.

Trees such as cedar, juniper, thuya and laurel are fragrant thanks to their essential oils, which also repel insects and offer some measure of rot-resistance.  Using them, plus the first man-made olfactories which we synthesised in Victorian times, we attempted to sanitise the city.  Centuries later, we’ve got rid of the smells of horse manure, industrial effluent and latterly vehicle exhaust: yet if you walk through Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin or any other large city today, the impression you still gain is one of rancid piss, unemptied bins and sour drains.

The voiceover man in a recent documentary about Glasgow’s Duke Street, which is Britain’s longest pointed out, “Dirt, filth, stench everywhere - and believe me, there are back courts just as bad as this throughout Glasgow.” When we used fragrant plants to mask those bad smells, that was a reductive use of scent.  By contrast, modern cities bombard us with additive smells. 

Supermarkets smell a particular way for carefully calculated reasons.  Just as they fine-tune the colour temperature of lighting over the fruit displays, and control the volume and tempo of music (Mahler works better than Metallica if you want wine buyers to linger in the Reisling aisle), then the yeasty pastry smell which meets you at the door of Waitrose was designed that way.  Similarly, Starbucks, Walt Disney and Dunkin Donuts are reputed to carry out environmental conditioning to “enhance the visitor experience”, ie. using smells to sell more stuff.

This enhancement by scent in buildings isn’t a new idea … in fact, we rarely come across genuinely new ideas – and when we do, we dismiss them too readily because they strike us as sorts with the way we already understand the world.  For example, where I grew up there were lots of invisible boundaries.  One was the postcode boundary between suburb and countryside, another the catchment line which separated neighbouring primary schools.  A subtler one was the Clean Air Act line: houses on one side were built in the 1960’s and had at least one chimney.  On the other side, nae lums. 

Before central heating banished smoke from our houses, wood fires scented the house and folk with fireplaces, who ignore them throughout the rest of the year, often make up a fire at Christmas time with pine logs.  Pine smoke is a welcoming, festive smell… which is now so unfamiliar in the city that we have to visit the grandparents to enjoy the sweet smell of kindling and the acrid smell of bituminous coal banked up in the grate.

Perhaps the Clean Air Act was a turning point, during some otherwise unremarkable year in the 1960’s when the city smelt a little more sterile, ironically just as the perfume houses released all those potent musk colognes and patchouli perfumes which our parents began wearing.  Simultaneously, the 1950’s world of coal gas and soot, bleach and carbolic, Woodbines and Izal receded into memory.

The more strongly individuals smell, the more architecture collectively fades into the background.  Perhaps that’s another difference between buildings and people.

I’ll return to this again in future, as I’m interested in what the future looks like, and smells like…

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