SMELL

March 12, 2010
secaucus izzieblow
Empire State Building and Laurel Hill, Secaucus, NJ, 1990 (source)

 

From 2005 to 2009, New Yorkers complained of a maple syrup smell, periodically wafting through the neighborhoods of Manhattan’s west side. Conspiracy theories ensued, including olfactory terrorism and even UFOs. It took four years, and hundreds of calls to 311 for the city to finally pinpoint the source of the smell: Frutarom, a company in New Jersey that processes fenugreek seeds.

 

It was fitting that the smell was ultimately traced to New Jersey, as the state has a long history with scent. The Meadowlands, across the river from Manhattan, have been used as a dumping ground as long as the area has been settled—there was no other practical use for the swampy geography. The area was also at the epicenter of the industrial revolution, its watersheds converted into polluted mires, as they were located downriver from two of the largest industrial powerhouses in the world. Additionally, at the beginning of the 1900’s, New Jersey, and Secaucus specifically, housed a substantial number of pig farms (it is estimated that there were as many as 250,000 pigs on fifty-five farms in Secaucus), accounting for the local tease, ‘you smell Caucus before you Secaucus’.

 

While the Maple Syrup Mystery of 2009 served to reinforce the olfactory mythologies of New Jersey, it also shed light on the scent politics of the New York region. The island of Manhattan is spared odors by pushing its polluting industries West of the Hudson.

 

E. Sean Bailey

 

Isabella Blow (source)

 

Smells, can be locators, which may orient one spatially through psychological or physical means. Physically speaking, smells can affect how an individual moves through a space. They might incite a range of emotional responses such as repulsion and seduction which may turn one away or draw one near. Smells are also known to trigger memory, as so elegantly demonstrated at Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2007 show where he paid tribute to the late Isabella Blow by filling the room with the scent of her favorite perfume, Fracas. Similarly, the smell of incense or popcorn can serve as ritualistic reminders of religious spaces or movie theaters, respectively. Capitalizing on this knowledge, companies such as Comme des Garçons are branding their retail spaces through the creation of unique scents as a means of further cementing their identity. Beyond the realm of smells which are applied to a space, there are then those which are inherent in building materials and processes and may serve as an integral part of a design’s sensuality. Despite all of its atmospheric potential, smell is one avenue of spatial manipulation that is rarely, if ever, intentionally exploited by architects.

 

Erandi de Silva

 

 

 

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