Our protagonist walks around in a field of green she had recently discovered. It’s luscious, vast, open, breezy, and smells like … well … green. The words that run through her head that describe the surrounding odor is fresh, morning dew, soothing, relaxing, soft, and therapeutic. She struggles to find phrases that can describe the smells she’s inhaling other than comparing them to other smells her brain has already registered (smells like freshly cut grass), but still attempts to use emotions that are conjured up by the scents surrounding her. Other words that run through her head associated more of “taste” rather than “smell” are minty, sweet, and delicious (appetite inducing). Suddenly, a whiff of not so fresh air slaps her like a ton of bricks – she starts to cough, as her lungs feel violated by the sharp, obnoxious, overpowering stench that just attacks her like a series of punching arrows. She notices a man far in the distance, pants down, and doing his business (number 2 – not 3 … bear with me here), hiding in a tall patch of grass, trying to get some privacy. She takes a couple of steps back and turns around, going back into her serene mode and enjoy the vast natural green nothingness in front of her. She takes a step back, and the vile smell of excrement is able to penetrate her personal space once again. She has found the invisible threshold and spatial boundary that separates the land that smells like trees from the land the smells like shit. She has made a startling discovery: boundaries need not be visible, and she could define space by her sense of smell.

 

Quite often than we would like to admit, architect and designers completely neglect any other sense other than that of vision when coming up with a design. This could very well be because the media that is chosen to represent said designs are purely visual (sketches, drawings, 3D Visualizations, 3D printed models…etc.) There is a claim that physical models done by hand invite the architect to think tactically – but that is a discussion for another month’s discussion. Architects use visual cues like lines and shapes to define space (be it drawn on paper, drafted on computer screens, or digitized on 3D modelling software), so it is quite logical that the human perception to define “space” as a purely (mostly) visual aspect; be it in the positive visual format – i.e. form, figure, object…etc – or the negative visual format – i.e. space, ground, volume…etc. But are these visual cues such as floors, walls, windows, roofs…etc, the only aspects that define space? Whether or not human awareness grasps this, but our consciousness experiences space in a multisensory dimension. While sight is dependent on the cone of vision (about 150 degrees, or 75 degrees either way – don’t quote me on this, I suggest you google this as I might be wrong, but it is very close to this number), both sound and smell surround the human body, creating a 360 degree spatial bubble around us, and is a much more accurate antenna when it comes to a cartesian understanding of spatial context.

 

But how can we define space by our sense of smell? Well, we should go back to our protagonist and analyze her discovery. On a visual level, her perception of space has not changed, as it is the same continuous luscious greens that whisk in the soft breeze that she sees. On an aural level, her perception of space has not changed, as she is surrounding by the same birds chirping, ruffling of the leaves, and crunches of her soft footsteps. On a haptic level, her perception of space has not changed, as it is the same series of natural textures that her fingertips and barefoot toes feel – be it the textures of the tall grass she is walking on and fondling with as he goes on with her journey. On a tasting level … well… that has changed either. But on an olfactory level, she can sense an extreme division of space between the spot she was standing in 11 seconds ago, and the three footsteps Northeast she took. There was no physical wall defining this boundary, no change in sound or acoustics… but a very strong change in smell that creates this invisible wall around the little gift man left in the middle of the grass.

 

Unlike visual boundaries, olfactory boundaries start gradually and get stronger as one moves towards the source, making it very difficult to truly pinpoint the exact line of boundary between both spaces (smelly and non smelly). In our houses, we use elements like walls, floor and ceiling to help contain both smells and sound in one particular spot/place. But when walking within a landscape, there is a point when the human nose starts to realize that something is wrong and smells bad – I would argue that this would be the boundary that separates both olfactory spaces from one another. It is true that such a boundary, unlike visual boundaries, are considered gradients – but they are boundaries nonetheless.

 

So why is this important? So far, we have discussed the separation between two olfactory spaces that can be identified as “smelly” and “non smelly”, this would be an extremely obvious option and does help designers achieve much (unless it is the design intent to create a particular spot to have quite a bad stench – perhaps said stench is not detectable by man but used to shoo away certain animals and insects). Designers can play around with the sense of smell by creating a series of olfactory experiences within a path, allowing those undergoing the path to travel joyfully from point A, to B, to C. For example, a landscape designer may choose to deal with the design of a monotonous street walk where all the architectural facades look exactly the same by allowing the sense of smell to add the element of surprise for human perception. Starting off with a strong sense of lavender, the pedestrian undergoing this path my walk for a few minutes before being very gently greeted with a new whiff of mint. As the pedestrian moves along, the strong scent of lavender gradually fades and the scent of mind starts to take over, until lavender is completely undetected and lemongrass is introduced… and so forth.

 

What makes playing with the scent of smell a lot of fun (and a kin to both cooking or color mixing in a way) is that the designer can play with degrees of overlap between boundaries. If one is to draw an abstract venn diagram of two overlapping visual spaces, the boundaries of the circles making up said venn diagram is very strong and evident. When drawing the venn diagram of the sense of smell (same with sound), there is no clear boundary, as the sensory input is strongest at the epicenter and fades away as one walks further from the central point. These can be used to play around by subtly blending and interconnecting spaces with one another that the visual understanding of spaces never could. The designer often tries to play with an understanding of visual gradients and transparencies when addressing space, but the abstract diagram often fails when translated to pure visual objects which are rather tangible and evident (not allowing for the gradual transition between spaces as the designer hope and/or claims). By employing the sense of smell into the design, this abstract diagram can be easily achieved as it is more natural for the other senses (like smell and sound) to employ. So that pedestrian on the path from the previous paragraph  walks in the lavender zone, the introduction to the mint zone would overlap creating a dual olfactory sensory intake. Landscape designers are able to pair or group smells together that compliment one another, and it is the only sense that can blend items with one another (if we are to identify lavender, mint, and lemongrass as singular items); the eye can identify each color on its own in color groupings, the ear can identify each note or voice/instrument on its own (and if they blend too close together they turn into cacophonic noise or a well-crafted wall of sound), but the nose is not as developed to be able to distinguish or unlayer the group of smells that are presented together, giving the designer a wider array of combinations that can be used to surprise the human sensory perception.

The designer could also use smell to ignite or trigger memory responses with his human subject, allowing the visitor/pedestrian/dweller to experience two realities at the same time; the physical reality and the memory. There is such a thing called “Olfactory Memory”, where smell is known to trigger both memories and emotions. This is of course highly dependent on the subject being exposed to these triggers, as each of us would react to the sensory inputs different; I may not react to lavender but the scent of mint would remind me of days when I would be ill in bed as a child and my mom would take care of me by making me a hot cup of fresh mint, and on the other hand, you probably wouldn’t react much to mint but the smell of lavender would remind you of days you were doing laundry with your new wife and discovered that TIDE had really good smelling detergent, and that particular smell reminds you of what you used to consider “home”.

Designers have no way to be able to control what memories they are able to induce with their subjects, but can only plan for that by allowing “smell” to be an integral part of the design, that such memories and emotions would be ignited (and only hope that such ignited are positive memories and emotions). The human subject then gets to experience such a space in a multitude of ways; not only by being engaged in all their senses, but by living and reliving the memory in their mental space as well. While their bodies are engulfed in the enclosure that the designer has physically set forth, their mind wanders off into another realm full of strong emotional responses and nostalgia.

The ability to create this dual world, even if for a few minutes, within people is a very powerful design tool that us designers have taken for granted. I hope that as we push forward in our evolution as a profession and revolutionize our digital tools that we also take a step back and pay the same attention to the psychological, phenomenological and perceptual tools that we have been neglecting in our design arsenal.

Until next week 🙂

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture