We are renovating a building from the late 1800s, which involves sanding and refinishing a pine floor that’s older than any person alive on Earth. Particles of wood dust in the air, set free after what could have been over a century of entrapment under layers of oil, met my nostrils. My nerves interpreted the chemical compounds and transferred the information for my brain to process, causing me to feel something.Some say that they will never forget the smell of their mother’s favorite perfume—smells can be imprinted on us with deep emotions and memories. Smells can also be pleasant or offensive—and we tend to know it right away. It varies with each smeller, though many would agree that there are certain smells that evoke a universal reaction. Every object contains a smell, whether it’s as pungent as a lemon-scented Lysol or as pleasant as the near-non-smellness of a public building. As designers, we are often limited to catalogues that smell like heavily processed paper and without any scratch-and-sniff to get a sense of the product’s smell. Often we do not even receive such catalogues. We stare down at the pixels of the computer screen wondering, “what would this look like in-person?” without even a trigger to arouse wonder about the product’s smell (as Google once convinced of the American public-at-large of its newest technology).In the age of online shopping, are we capable of desensitizing ourselves from the materials we specify for our projects?
Most of us can remember the smell of a fresh-painted room or an old log cabin, even though the color of the walls or the species of the wood are forgotten. Nonetheless we often specify architectural materials and finishes based on their aesthetic and physical properties, often ignoring its effect on our sense of smell.
Perhaps more oddly, there was a phase during architecture school when I insisted on tasting the site—the blades of the grass and the leaves of the trees. This part perhaps seems less romantic than the smell of freshly-sanded pine, since we smell our lawn and flowers more often than taste them. Maybe our chalky plaster walls and chunky terrazzo floors aren’t meant to be tasted after all. But could the perception of our buildings change based on whether our walls taste less like paint and more like Italian coffee; our floors less like bleach and more like zucchini? I’m sure our dogs could tell us the answer.Perhaps taste is stretching the boundaries of the scope of our profession as architects, but architecture does evoke all five basic senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste—and additional senses such as heat and balance, which are sometimes more important to the building’s inhabitants.
I recall the smell of pine floors, freshly sanded. I remind myself that the smell is now entrapped again under layers of sealers and finishes—to which I’d like to say—smell ya later!