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Olfactory Architectures

Urban Smellscapes

Smell is a sense most architects have engaged with at some point in their work: whether designing a house, a residential care home or the industrial kitchen for a commercial restaurant, the ventilation of rooms and removal of strong and potentially unpleasant odours is a well-rehearsed practice. Yet in addition to the annoying smells, olfaction also offers many opportunities that have traditionally been overlooked, and it’s not just in architecture but right across the built environment professions.

Smell is a sense most architects have engaged with at some point in their work: whether designing a house, a residential care home or the industrial kitchen for a commercial restaurant, the ventilation of rooms and removal of strong and potentially unpleasant odours is a well-rehearsed practice. Yet in addition to the annoying smells, olfaction also offers many opportunities that have traditionally been overlooked, and it’s not just in architecture but right across the built environment professions.

So why is this the case? First, most western societies place low value on the sense of the smell, a by-product of the very way that the sense of smell functions. Throughout our lives we constantly breathe in-and-out and it is important we are able to switch off from many of the smells our noses detect. As a result, we frequently don’t appreciate the contribution smells make to everyday experiences of places and buildings, as anyone who has lost their sense of smell will testify. Whether the smell of the materials such as wood, stone or plaster, or the carpets, paint and furnishings, every building has its own odour but in the majority of cases, these come about as what architect Herve Ellena described as an unforeseen consequence rather than as a planned effect.

Second, smell is notoriously difficult to measure: unlike environmental sound which we can record, or visual appearance which we can photograph or sketch, it is very difficult to capture a smell and even more difficult to recreate. New technologies and electronic modeling are assisting in bridging this gap, but few gadgets exist with the sophistication of the human sense of smell.

Third, little has been known until recent years about how smell actually works; it is truly incredible to think that it wasn’t until the 1990s that the scientific community gained any degree of consensus about this. The more we learn, the more intriguing smell becomes: did you know, for example, there a few smell preferences that we are born with and instead we learn them as we go along, and that some smells can only be detected if you have certain genes?

The situation is, however, changing and not just in the real estate market or supermarket where odours of freshly baked bread are infamously released. Themes parks are introducing smells to enhance environmental ‘authenticity’, scents are used in the Paris Metro to improve customer experience, and the city of Grasse in the South of France even has a perfumed fountain. So next time you are working on a site or building, turn your attention to what you can smell, you might be surprised!

Victoria Henshaw is Programme Director for the Masters in Urban Design and Planning at the University of Sheffield and author of the book Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments (Routledge 2013).