“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally.”-  Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The sense of smell is underrepresented not just in urban studies and design but also in society. The potential of odors in creating and experiencing places is enormous and, therefore, cannot be ignored. We all avoid areas with bad smells of smoke, exhaust fumes, rotten fish in the evening markets, etc., and love going to places with scents close to home, be it a cafe, bakery, or the lawn, while it’s raining. The purpose of smell is typically related to memory (the limbic system of the brain processes both), and the classic aromas are likely to lead visitors on their little journeys down memory lane.

While space refers to a vast, empty, three-dimensional concept within which a series of related events or things occur, place refers to a specific location. This ‘place’ can be imaginary or real, having equal significance on our experience and senses. The article discusses how our sense of smell may help us identify a place without seeing it, recall memories of the past, and can immediately make us feel happy or unpleasant.

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Car exhaust fumes – one of the main smells in dense urban space__©gettyimages.in

Smellscapes In The City

The term smellscape is used as a counterpart for visual landscape; although its attributes are more fast-changing, it depends on individual or group impressions at a given time. McLean, an artist and course leader at the School of Architecture, University of Kent, UK, has spent the last decade studying the smellscapes of numerous cities and interpreting their sensory attributes into maps. While these maps only represent smell at a particular instance, they still reveal how much information one can gather by just paying attention to smells. 

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Edinburgh Smellscape_©Dr. Kate McLean

Smells may act as boundaries, limiting our mobility inside a space; for example, we can avoid a corner because we expect it to stench like sewage or spilled beer. However, odors may be a nice element of traveling around the city. They can arouse recollections of prior events; they may transport us to various places and eras, linking us to memories and past encounters. A particular dish’s aroma may evoke memories of a previous holiday; the fragrance of a flower may evoke memories of an event. 

Smells in the city are primarily a result of various human activities and are key identifiers of the place’s culture, industry, food, and government services. Except for baked goods, most of our favorite smells nowadays are of natural landscapes or elements like the sea breeze, pinewoods, cherry blossoms, or grass when it rains. 

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The smell of the sea_©https://zapachmorza.business.site/

Human beings’ ability to smell used to be critical to our survival. Using odors, we identified life-threatening risks like rotting and toxic foods, fire, and disease. Many of the presently manufactured aromas in cities are significantly more potent than natural smells and have the potential to endanger human health. It indicates how essential fragrances are to the human mind and how ignoring them in urban design neglects what comes naturally. Thinking about how a city smells, if nothing else, might help maintain its essence and improve our insight into neighborhoods.

Compelling Examples of Placemaking Using Scents 

To create a memorable experience, using fragrance in design does not require a significant budget or a lot of art direction. Everything is just imaginative. Museums now employ scents for creation, whether for heritage sake or to display artwork or exhibition. A study by Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic in 2017 highlights how knowing what the environment smelled like in the past deepen our understanding of it, helping us participate more emotionally in our history.

York’s JORVIK Viking Centre

Liquid concentrates are utilized in the Jorvik Viking Museum in York (UK) to give visitors a multisensory sense of what life would have been like for the Vikings of York in the 10th century (AD 948) as they go around the various museum displays. In this scenario, fragrance transmits an environment that none of us have ever experienced: that of almost 1000 years ago in York. The scents of a Viking village, both filthy and aromatic, are shared by visitors as they move through a reproduction of Jorvik.

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Jorvik Viking Center_©https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0

Fleeting Scents in Color – Smell the art, Mauritshuis

The exhibition Fleeting – Odors in Color delves into the depiction of fragrance and smell in 17th-century painting, the scents of the past, the significance of scent in storytelling, the suggestion of scent in artworks, and sensory perception. Visitors can participate in a variety of scents relating to the painting. The exhibition ‘Fleeting Scents in Color’ is a journey of discovery that will inspire people to look at art in new ways. They may smell a clean linen cupboard, bleaching fields, ambergris, myrrh, and the foul-smelling waterways through the numerous aroma dispensers.

Feelting Scents in Colour_©httpswww.mauritshuis.nlenwhat-s-onexhibitionsexhibitions-from-the-pastfleeting-scents-in-colour

References 

  1. Suskind, P., & Woods, J. (2007). Perfume. London: Penguin Books.
  2. Eschenmoser, S. (2022). from https://scripties.uba.uva.nl/download?fid=c2870527
  3. Mackay, R. (2022). The smell of success: how scent became the must-have interpretative tool, from https://blooloop.com/museum/in-depth/museum-scents/
Author

A student interested in understanding people and their relation with spaces better, both through the built and unbuilt. She is fascinated by little things and wants to share that feeling with the world through her words.