November 30, 2012 7:05 pm

Scent of a building

Oak, tobacco and terracotta are all part of the olfactory architecture
Illustration by Kai and Sunny©Kai and Sunny

I now realise the great historians of architecture have all sold themselves short. They looked at buildings too much. They never thought to sniff the places they wrote about, not realising that old buildings literally reek of history. But now we may be approaching a new age of nostril-quivering architecture whose designers draw a breath, having thought about the smell of the places we live in.

“Smell is our oldest sense,” says Chandler Burr, curator of the department of olfactory art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the first museum to exhibit scent as a historic art form and where the show The Art of Scent runs until February 24 2013. He’s in good company: Nabokov said that “nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it”, and we’ve all experienced how our olfactory systems can instantly recall the fug of a school dining hall or your mother’s powder-puff.

This happens because a combination of volatile chemicals, or “odorants”, as well as some proteins and hydrocarbons, having landed on the mucus of your nasal passages, are transferred via helpful neurons to the mitral cells of your olfactory bulb situated behind your eyes. Suddenly, those memories are fresh in the mind but – wonderfully – nobody has yet figured out exactly how the brain finally processes and expresses smells.

The mysterious world of odour is nonetheless pervasive; it surrounds us and emanates from us. So why – in the architectural world – are monumental whiffs greatly underappreciated? It’s not just because we have about 1/1700th of a dog’s talent for sniffing.

Carlos Huber has a nose for scent. I met the conservation architect and perfumier at a World Monuments Fund dinner in New York, to eat the smell of buildings. This needs some explanation: Huber’s scent brand, Arquiste, takes aromas from historical locations, and blends them to create a synthesis of time and place. Many of those sites are World Monuments Fund projects being rescued from decay and destruction. “It’s hard to agree on what makes a nice smell,” he admits. “Different cultures have their own odours – some you live with, and some can give you a violent reaction. It’s a primal and emotional thing.”

And so Huber planned to have us eat places, with chef Roberto Santibañez turning the ingredients of his six perfumes into dishes, so that the syntheses of flowers, spices, woods and grasses from history would permeate the senses and trigger the collective memory.

Huber’s own emotions are rooted in his upbringing in historic and tropically redolent Mexico City, where home was heavy with the musk of market flowers. In looking to his much deeper Jewish heritage, the scent “L’Etrog” recalls a Tyrrhenian breeze in October, 1175. It’s based on the large yellow citrus called etrog in Hebrew, known to Italians as cedro after it was introduced to southern Italy from the Holy Land a millennium or so ago. Within the shelter of palm leaves, Calabrians gave annual thanks for a good harvest and celebrated by eating seasonal fruits such as dates. The scent fuses those plant essences with indigenous flora such as myrtle and vetivert.

The dinner guests were then sprung forward five centuries. Huber had rediscovered a recipe book from the Royal Convent of Jesus Maria in Mexico City, in which was the formula for cocoa infused with an assortment of spices. It was dated November, 1695. The fragrance “Anima Dulcis” featured those same ingredients we were now eating in a thick brown fragrant mole: chilli, vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate, paired with pink duck. It was mesmeric.

As we tucked in, I couldn’t help but contrast that finesse against the use of historic fragrance in the Jorvik Viking Centre in York in the UK, celebrating Viking culture through the sounds and smells of Danish defecation, courtesy of a squatting, grunting mannequin. I found that particular odour tends to stick in the memory as well.

It may never inspire a Jo Malone scented candle, but it has a point: surely history was a less sanitary place, full of less pleasant smells? “Oh, no one would really want to smell like Louis XIV,” retorts Huber. Ultimately, his aim is not archaeological reconstruction, it’s a constructive evocation.

There’s a parallel to be made here with his other discipline: architectural conservation. When Huber trained at Columbia University, he became aware of the fact that no historic building can be repaired and refreshed without adding a new layer to its history, which inevitably alters it. The game is to research the history of a building’s additions and accretions and thereby identify the essence of its character – which would equate to the base of a perfume. In designing a refurbishment, that character is then adjusted and emphasised to create a synthesis of form, material and detail that the architect deems to be in harmony. So the chemistry of a particular place has a strong parallel with the chemistry of a distinctive scent. And both wearer and inhabitant change the chemistry by contributing layers of their own, adding personality.

Once, smells were deliberately incorporated into architecture. Medieval garderobes were designed so that the ammonia stink of a latrine shaft would repel moths from the robes being guarded. More agreeably, orangeries and limonaie housed blossoming trees during the winter, offering a deeply scented promenade, hence they became much more than simple greenhouses. From the 16th century, Netherlandish pattern books persuaded builders to incorporate moulded plaster ceilings and carved oak overmantels with characters sniffing, listening, tasting, ogling and touching, accompanied by animals with developed powers – a beagle commonly represented smell. Gardens of lavender, dog rose and sweet herbs enlivened the air, which was thought to ward off pestilence from principal chambers. People took smell seriously.

Before central heating removed smoke from our houses, wood fires and kitchens lay down further layers of domestic smellscape. Five hundred years ago a rose soup called pap, made with cream, almond milk and sugar, wafted through the bedchambers of the infirm and infantile in northern Europe. As prepared at Hampton Court’s Tudor kitchens, it brings people closer to those who lived there when Henry VIII pounded the floorboards. And this knowledge is instructive. The late American satirist Henry Mencken defined an idealist as “one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup”. Well, it happens that rose soup is one of the most ideal things I’ve ever eaten. Whether I’d wear an eau de pap is another matter. But the smells of the past have the power to surprise, and even convince us we can share a continuity of human experience even when the physical environment has changed beyond recognition. Absolute orange blossom, for example, smells just the same as it ever did, and ever will.

Over the past decade or so, the deliberate use of smell in architectural design has reigned supreme in supermarkets, pumping out the caramel-rich fumes of pastry kitchens into the nostrils of arriving customers. Hot yeast and sugar is the scent of profit. At home, we try to eradicate smells with extractor fans and an arsenal of chemical cleaners, usually honking of factory-fresh pseudoflora.

How can we better incorporate smellscapes into design so that noble materials speak to us in another dimension? Huber recently refurbished a New York town house. “At one moment, the smell changed completely,” he says. “It wasn’t the paint, it was using fresh oak. The entire perception of the space changed because of that.” Other than oak tannin, he recommends pine or cedar, and the deep smells of terracotta, leather, stucco walls and concrete.

The last material dish reminded me of my stay in the monastery of La Tourette, Le Corbusier’s last building near Lyon. Its grey corridors held a pervading earthy odour with a slight sharpness. I never imagined that concrete smells, but it certainly does, even after 40 years, as will any building lime used in castles or cathedrals a millennium old.

So whether we like it or not, smell is intrinsic to the personality of a place: every one of our homes is individual, and could be more so. My own earliest memory is not the flowers of Mexico City but my grandparents’ house, a limestone two-up two-down by the River Welland in Lincolnshire, infused by boiled cabbage and the vanilla haze of Virginia ready-rubbed pipe tobacco. From that tiny house, cities seemed impossibly glamorous, but I now think in a different way about places such as Los Angeles. In the words of the late film director Jean Renoir: “Wilshire Boulevard ... It has no smell to it.” Who’d be damned by faint odour?

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE