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Smell the city!

Smellwalking in NYC, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum event – photo by Ben Hider 2018


The sense of smell plays an important role in our perception of space and places, and the better we understand this relationship, the closer we come to designing liveable cities. Iva Radić-Capuani from adelphi had the honor to speak with Kate McLean, one of the most renowned smellscape researchers.


Why and when you become interested in exploring city smells?


My interest in exploring and mapping city smellscapes lies is because smell is a double invisible sense and I wanted to call attention to its existence in the sensory order and contribution to understandings of space and place. My first work in this area was in 2010 when I was studying at Edinburgh College of Art. 


In 2010 you had an exhibition in Edinburgh on the smellscapes of Paris, for which you created a series of different odors distinctive to the city. Tell us about your preparations, the exhibition itself and what you found out. 


Back in 2010, I asked Parisians what the typical smells of their city were. Based on this I made a series of different aromas summarizing the different aspects of Parisian life in various neighbourhoods. It was kitchen chemistry; I looked up how to extract and capture odours and found out that oils, alcohol, and water work well. It was a lot of fun, extremely exploratory and experimental. For example, to get the smell of fresh bread, I would bake a baguette every morning. While the loaf was still hot I broke the crust open and put it in a plastic bag with a piece of black velvet. For the exhibition I removed the velvet from the bread and placed it in a small jar; the velvet held the smell for about 24 hours before I had to repeat the process.

I thought it would be quite light-hearted, fun, and that I would end up with the names of towns and cities. Instead, quite the opposite happened.



The exhibition had 14 different odours in jars and I asked visitors to write down a location and an emotion that they associated with the different smells that were on display. Interestingly, their reactions and answers were completely different from what I had expected. I thought it would be quite light-hearted, fun, and that I would end up with the names of towns and cities. Instead, quite the opposite happened. People were incredibly reflective and quiet. They would generally sniff three times at each smell – trying to understand it before formulating their thoughts. Their individual responses were personal and poignant. For example, I had a smell of Gauloises cigarettes, and somebody in response wrote: “I am standing on the railway platform, it’s late at night and really cold. Further down the platform somebody is smoking a cigarette“. 


At this point I realised there is something really interesting in terms of the personal associations that we have with smell. Which means generalisations about the nature of smell experience concerning cities and environments are flawed.