Invisible Architecture & Human Perception: Smells and Spaces

"Two characteristics demanded of the building are stability and solidity. A purpose of the building is keep the outside outside and the inside spatially defined and materially certain. Traditionally, threats from outside come in a number of guises, notably inclement weather conditions and undesirable people. Both are associated with the formless, fluid, unstable and unpredictable.The threat of external factors is psychological and social as much as physical and, sometimes, the threat of the outsider fuses with the threat of the outside, so that one becomes a metaphor of the other"
Jonathan Hill  

        The word “architecture”encompass an amazing amount of diverse worlds. According to the Oxford dictionary it is “the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings” or “the complex or carefully designed structure of something 1”. Based on these definitions, we can say that architecture is not only the building in itself but the structure, the project, the reflection and emotions it produces. In fact, architecture is about creating spaces, even ephemeral ones, even invisibles one, even immaterial ones. The human being experiences architecture through his senses, and feels emotions. Based on Philippe Rahm’s projects around Paradise how can we say smell influences our perception of space and that it is possible to use this influence to create invisible spaces? First I will analyse the projects by Philippe Rahm “Il buon odore di Cristo” and “Paradise Now!” and pull off greats ideas I will deepen: how we are impacted by smell, how we can manage smell in architecture and how it can improve our buildings.

        Decosterd & Rahm - a Swiss duo of architects working together between 1995 and 2006, now separated – are interested in the invisible aspect of architecture. They undertook to make some researches about convection, conduction, transpiration, humidity, and temperature to think spaces with new points of view. Their architecture does not use everyday materials, they have a different vision of architecture: first, they work on material, structure, space and light, and think how they can use it to make a new model of architecture. Then they studied impacts and physical exchanges between the architecture, our environment and our organism. And after all those experimentations, they thought about an organization of their researches to make a space or installation, with a new system. For them, air was complex and it’s not a vacuum 2. In 2004 they presented an installation “ Il buon odore di Cristo, aria d ‘Artificio”at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice. The foundation exposed works of different artists about emotions they chose; they had to connect the emotion to their work.
Decosterd & Rahm had to work on “ecstasy” and chose to use an invisible installation. It was a “scent-spreading installation”, the architects created a sculpture: it went down from the ceiling to the ground and when it touched the floor it sprayed out a perfume. The smell was a reconstitution of Christ’s scent.

        Decosterd & Rahm worked on credulity, architecture and smell to make this installation. Philippe Rahm said about this project :
“Before, the sacred was really symbolic and narrative. With modernity, the Church loses this symbol. And my project was a radical rupture of the usual to convert it to a simple smell 3”.
The two architects asked themselves about the sacred. What was the more basic representation of belief? How can we forget the symbol in favour of the immersion in the space? This kind of representation allows the visitor to imagine his own vision of the sacred: it surprised him. About the space it permits to transform it through the perception, through the experience. The air becomes the context and the support of the structure; the scent becomes the architecture. It was inspired by religious texts, to create the perfect fragrance. Each person interprets the smell differently, because we don’t have the same history, the same body, but we all have a shared base. How can we use this base to create olfactive spaces understood by all?

        In 2006, Philippe Rahm reiterated the experience, alone with “Paradise Now! ” at La Fondation Cartier, the Instituto Svizzero di Roma and The International at Manchester. It wasthen based on religious texts, not only Christian ones. It smelled musk, aloe, milk, honey and wine. Heaven was represented physically, not as a garden but as an invisible space. Imam El-Rifal Mouwaffak, and the professor Jean-Pierre Albert helped Philippe Rahm to describe the smell and find the perfect fragrance. A new type of translation of our imagination.

How can we create thanks to these new tools, and what do we need? With these two installations, Decosterd & Rahm wanted to explore the transcendent and the sacred trough perception. Smell is the perfect sense for this; olfactory memories are more powerful than any other memory. It helps for meditation, by the immersion in a new world, without representation. The mind is free. The two architects explored the physical limits beyond the sense of smell.

Philippe Rahm, Paradise Now, Vol 2, 2006, Fondation Cartier
Philippe Rahm, Paradise Now, Instituto Svizzero di Roma, 2005.
What is important in “Paradise Now” and “Il buon odore di Cristo” is not the sculpture or the limits of the room. It’s the reaction in our brain produced by the proteins of the ciliary membrane in our nervous system. The reaction is deeper than the reception of visual content.

We feel architecture thanks to our fives senses. If we want to use each hidden recess we have to know how our body works. Human system is complex; we have two types of receivers. Our nose, eyes and ears compose the distance receiver while our skin composes the close receiver. The nose is the first receiver; the one we used the most when we were Australopithecus. It’s a vital sense. Nowadays this sense is less important, and it’s no developed as much as before. We can only smell in a little area around us. Edward Hall worked on what he called “the hidden dimension”4. He analysed the world and broke down it into spheres. For him, the human conserves similar distances in the relationships he has with others humans. In our field, we are interested in the intimate distance, because in this sphere, the olfactive perception is as important as the hearing perception. In this space we can perceive the body’s smell and breath. To smell the scent or a perfume we have to be close to it. It can provoke bad sensations or good ones. The architect has to manage it.
For Victoria Henshaw –a Canadian architect- it’s essential to think about smell while an architect conceives his project. Because this sense affects memory’s functioning and it has the power to evoke memories deeper than images5. In this way, smell has a certain power. She participates at the “Congress international on ambiances” at the Canadian Center of Architecture in Quebec, an International Congress. Organized every four years, its goal is to gather people who analyse the environmental conditions. They work on the sensitive aspect of the contemporary world.
This sense is not only exploited in art or installation; can it also be applied to popular architecture? Actually, smell makes contact with the user and his housing environment. Architecture grows around visual and acoustic effects. However, we seem to forget that smells can have a high symbolic value, as they are linked with memory. The sense of smell plays therefore an important role about the image that we construct around the city, its space and its building. If smells have an influence on the experience we make of a space, how can architectural processes take into account this essential parameter? Even if this field is interesting, smells are forgotten today. For the French architect Marc Crunelle, there are seven causes: we considerate space as vacuum, we have difficulties to represent smells, because of physiologic reasons, hygienic, behavioural, moral values and we are not aware of olfactory practice of the past 6.

        The first cause is linked to the fourth one, and can be illustrated by the huge clean up of Paris after the cholera’s epidemic of the 1832. In our cities, smell is always important; usually cities have a terrible scent due to pollution and sewer. But in Paris for example, when they clean up, they removed any smell. It was a total deodorisation. For some architects as Victoria Henshaw, or urbanisms, this politic of smell elimination is not a solution. For them the city has a smell and it’s a part of the architecture. We have to accept the smells and to construct with it. Works as “Paradise Now” we studied earlier solve the second cause, if we accept to use other representation to the visual one.
The third cause could is due to the importance of the sight and hearing that almost erases other senses. I already explained the fourth cause, when I talked about Edward Hall.
The sixth cause could be illustrated by Levi Strauss propos about the Jain temple in Kolkatta “When I visited the famous Jain temple in Calcutta (…), it seemed to me that its alabaster pavilion encrusted with a mosaic of mirrors and reeking with perfume was the most ambitious possible expression of our bordello. But in formulating this thought, I was not blaming India for building temples that looked like brothels, but rather blaming our civilization for not providing any other place where we could assert our freedom and explore the limits of our sensuality such functions in fact being appropriate to a temple 7”. Smell is ignored because in our civilisation it is associated to intimate parts of our body and life. In the literature smell is linked to intimacy and sex as in Levi Strauss description, or it is linked to our human essence as in The Perfume, or to bad smells as cities smell. If Levi Strauss compares a bordello with a temple it’s because these places are the only ones where we can smell odours, perfumes and fragrances, because there people do not try to avoid it.
The seventh cause is important and can be changed, as Decosterd & Rahm showed us. Our sense of smell was the first sense we developed, for our own survival. Then it became essential in our different religions, for Egyptian for example, smell was sacred. They controlled it, used it for death ritual. Perfume at this time was vapour. They made a connection between death and perfume, because of the ephemeral aspect and because of the last breath. In the Middle Age, people invented a better distillation and perfume became vapour. It became invisible.

        According to Annick Le Guérer 8, the sense of smell has more than a sensory function. It is the sense of intuitive knowledge. Tradition has it that nose is the instrument of clearsightedness and discernment, thus allowing anticipation. Unfortunately, the importance we . used to give to the sense of smell decreased as it was considered as an “obsolete sensory relic”. Even though it is sometimes at the heart of litterature (cf. Süskind), only the aesthetic dimension of smell is highlighted. This function needs to express differently than by what it arouses, that’s to say it must be a way and not an end in itself. It’s in this condition that the sense of smell could become a full parameter in the field of architecture.


Egyptian Perfumes /1300 B.C_Africa/ Etruscan perfume vase / Spray perfume, URSS 1965

        Thus, to construct and respect in the same time the sense of smell, we have to take into account all those factors. A new type of architecture appears: emotional architecture and invisible architecture.
Emotional architecture is a term used by Mathias Goeritz, in the Manifiesto de la Arquitectura Emocional 10. For him, when you produce architecture, you put emotions in it and you provoke emotions to the user. It is a transfer, even if sometimes the result is not the one expected, more in this dimension. Using smell in architecture is for Philippe Rahm not only physical but also an entity, and it is an atmosphere created by the collaboration between the architect, the nature and the user. The question changes from “what does it signify?” to “what effects does it produce?” with installation such as Blur Building by Diller + Scofidio. This installation is made by fog, so it is immaterial. It’s an installation to put in this new architecture that uses the environment as means to manipulate someone else’s body. Air is not a vacuum: when you create architecture you have to think about it, to investigate in it. We have to let the air enter in the building, and to think about air evacuation. What kind of smell do we want to keep?

Wind, light and smells make architecture as much as walls for Jonathan Hill. The user, in order to progress in his orientation, takes into account material parameters that are the floor, partitions, or the ceiling. But these elements only are the screen of a course which is inevitably motivated by others essential factors: they can be the memory of a space, a specific luminosity, or a draft. More than a memory, the sensory experience is also an immediate experience in the service of an immaterial architecture.

Blur Building by Diller + Scofidio

        Laurene Faure’s diploma “Immaterial architecture and the olfactive dimension” (2009) directed by Peter Cook 11 at l'Ecole Speciale d'Architecture dealt with London’s perfumer’s district. It’s another example of this new kind of architecture. She designed a distillery and a luxurious perfume shop with natural air currents.
The building gave smells, and she used it to attract people in it. The roof distils the odours; it seems to be an immaterial element. There is an olfactory identity in this neighbourhood. Without odours, the body is lost. “Atmosphere is not merely to judge of the quality and cleanliness but to determinate where one finds one shelf and the emotional sphere conveyed by the space itself 9”. Smell has different scales: the body, the building and the city. We have to know how to use it, and Lorene Faure made architecture with this different scales. She also used the notion of orientation, and her building became a landmark by its smell and not its height like others usually are.

Lorene Faure, The perfumers’ District

        People would argue this kind of architecture is going to far. Marcel Duchamp realized an object, “Air de Paris”, a phial. He just bought a phial already existing, then emptied it, sold it again, to an American couple of collectors, the Arensberg, and inside he put Paris Air and de facto its smell. For him, it was vital and precious, but in another way the object was also ironic. He highlighted the fact that people who used those factors could happen to be quacks, as it concerns a complex field. The main problem of “smell and architecture” is the ability of feeling invisible spaces. We ought to be educated and to have a formation. Indeed, it’s the role of the architect to make people live the space, and not to let them feel lost in it. And on the other side, people have to be active, it means that they must not be afraid of following their intuitions and their senses. The limits are also the ephemeral aspect: smells change, have different directions. You have also to be erudite to make it. But still, smells are today taken under consideration, it is a new kind of In our everyday life, we do not often think about smell. It’s all around us, and we are not sensible to it. In our flat we want to keep some smell, erase others and introduce new ones through flowers or incense. But smell is not only good or not; it also provokes sensations, as we saw. In architecture smell is used to create spaces for attracting people –like Lorene Faure’s diploma, or in malls-, relaxing us and helping us to access to other dimensions–as meditation-, provoking our memories, helping us to orient ourselves –like in tamoule’s houses. Smell is an old tool for architects and urbanisms, and it reapers today.

1 Collectif, Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford: Oxford, 2010)
2 Philippe Rahm, From Solid to vapour: ephemeral projects (Paris, 2011)
3 My translation“Philippe Rahm. Jardines, hormonas y celsius” last modified July 14, 2009
4 Edward Twitchell Hall, The Hidden dimension (Doubleday, 1966)
5 Victoria Henshaw interview,
6 Marc Cruenlle, Frangrances : du désir au plaisir olfactive. (Marseille, 2002)
7 Claude Levi Strauss, Tristes Tropiques. (Plon 1955)
9 Tran Ba Huy Patrice. Odorat et histoire sociale. In: Communication et langages. N°126,
4ème trimestre 2000. pp. 85-107.
10 Mathias Goeritz, Manifiesto de la Arquitectura Emocional (Mexico D.F, El Eco, 1953).
11 Laurene Faure, Immaterial architecture and the olfactive dimension, Diploma

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