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Invisible Architecture

Experiencing Places through the Senses

by Anna Barbara and Anthony Perliss

Skira Editore S.p.a, Milano 2006, ISBN ISBN: 10: 88-7624-26
233 pages, price £22.50
Many black and white and coloured illustrations

invisible arch2.jpg
Anna Barbara and Anthony Perliss have written a very thought-provoking book. When we mentioned it to an Italian architect friend, she was quite amazed at the idea of how this could be done and to some extent the complex problem posed by the title has not been fully answered.

The book also raises the question, what is architecture? Most of us have a preconceived notion that it is buildings and the built environment, but if we experience places through the sense of smell, as this book sets out to do, then it is rarely the actual buildings that produce the odour but the activities associated with them. Smells that we encounter are, mainly, produced by the function of the buildings or spaces and by the circumstances relating to them. Examples given of structures that do have a definite identifiable smell to them are often vernacular buildings and the materials that they are made of, such as animal skins, dung or clay have their own particular scent which is not present in the cities of today.

There is a reference to Alberto Savinio's work on Venice, Listen to your heart, city, in which he says: 'The water of Venice has its own odor. You can love Venice for its odor more than for any other reason it may have for being loved.' As we are writing this actually in Venice in March 2007, we have, surprisingly, experienced very little 'odor' in the city. We were discussing this as we walked to the wine shop one evening: the pervading smells are of food and its preparation, followed by shops selling soap and other cosmetics and then drains and finally the canals themselves, many of which are undergoing cleaning and restoration. The warming climate has produced more seaweed in the canals than perhaps is usual and from this, mainly nearer the lagoon, comes a seaside smell where is it most prevalent. But otherwise we found few identifiable smells from the canals themselves in the city. It is not clear from this book when Savinio wrote this, but at this present time his description does not apply.

An extract from Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, 1722, is quoted in the book and he wrote: "If we came to go into a church when it was anything full of people, there would be such a mixture of smells at the entrance that it was much more strong, though perhaps not so wholesome, than if you were going into an apothecary's or druggist's shop." He goes on to describe the different smells that would be encountered. This quotation sums up much of what the book is about, but it is brought it right up the present day with the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers in New York with the smell of the dust, consisting of cement, asbestos and paper among other things.

The interaction between religion and smells, incense and candles are two well known examples, is given consideration with the comment, on sacred sites, that 'their purpose was to serve as an emotional guide for the faithful in order to psychologically condition them and orient their participation'. The Corpus Domini ritual of the flower carpeted street is echoed in the one we witnessed in Russia for the feast of the Dormition and we read recently that it is a gipsy custom to spread flowers along the path that the coffin of a respected person will follow.

As you would expect from a Skira book it is well designed and profusely illustration. The illustrations include some out of the ordinary but seemingly irrelevant images, that do not correspond or enhance the text. In particular is a photograph of the delightful San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo. We visited this church last year and were captivated by its domes and tranquil cloisters and recall the strong scent of the orange blossom when we went there. However, this book does not give a reason for including the building which is unfortunate we would like to have known what the author has found there that either corresponded or conflicted with our experience. It would have been useful to have had more illustrations of other examples given in the text, such as Petra Blaisse's curtains, Yukio Nakagawa's installations and the work of Ned Kahn. They all sound fascinating, but are hard to imagine and pictures would have helped.

The authors give details of the way that smell has been used over the centuries by both man and animals and development of our ancient olfactory organ and its evolution as one of our essential senses. They point out that smell is much more developed in many animals but in man, as sight has become predominant, this sense has been pushed into the background. But this is not to say that it is unimportant: it evokes strong emotions and memories and, unlike sight and hearing, does not have to be present. In fact its fleeting, or sometime lingering nature, is one of its problems and makes it hard to control if it is being artificially introduced, as we have found. We would like more smell introduced into our multi-sensory work but the problems of the way it lingers or does not appear when necessary present difficulties at the present time; as technology advances this will change. Smell could also be used for navigation around urban environments, especially by those with sight problem, but it must be constant. A consultation with the blind and partially sighted group in York identified the smell of baked bread from Thomas the Baker as an indication that they were near the Post Office. However, in the long term this might not be reliable signposting as Thomas the Baker may close down and a completely different shop open there. Buildings and the sound of their spaces, especially in a historic city, usually remain more constant but odours come and go.

The link between odours, hygiene and the industrial age comes out strongly. The need for privacy for certain natural functions and then the deodorising of them is still a strong influence as shown by the multi-million pound market for cleaning products. But interestingly, the industrial revolution also created separate classes. As the authors say: Those who were morally fit were also nicely scented, and vice versa, those who stank were closer to beasts on the social ladder. We still carry the prejudice that those who are in constant contact "with bad odors are at the bottom of the professional scale: sewerage workers, bathroom cleaners, 'sanitary engineers', agricultural workers". We have come long way from the creature that walked on all fours and kept track of the scent along the trail, but the so-called progress has not always been for the best.

Another section of interest to us was the brief mention of Jardins physiologigues project which "takes the visitor through 'four gardens' relating to different dimensions of perception". The four gardens involved touch, smell, taste and the states of mind, with varying sensations for each. While not advocating the 'nauseating scents', although some plants produce them naturally, or the extreme prickliness for the tactile, sensory gardens could be made much more interesting if they were created for everyone with a broad range of sensory experiences, rather than creating a 'nice experience for blind people' as it often the case by well-meaning people.

The inclusion of the conversations between experts in the field of design, architecture and perfume are interesting and throw up some useful information, especially about the creation of perfumes. This is a subject about which most of us do not have much knowledge and we always wonder why they are so expensive. These dialogues go some way to explain this.

Other 'inserts' were more intrusive, interrupting the flow of the text and prompting, "Shall I read this first or shall I continue with the paragraph and go back to it" and then forget. This was unfortunate as many of them were intriguing.

There is much in this book that makes one think more deeply about the sense of smell and how it can be used and appreciated in our lives and environments. There is still much work to be done, but this is an exciting beginning.

Julia Ionides
The Dog Rose Trust

More information: www.skira.net

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