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Human olfactory system. 1: Olfactory bulb 2: Mitral cells  3: Bone 4: Nasal epithelium  5: Glomerulus 6: Olfactory receptor neurons  Source: Wikipedia/Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator

Architecture and the Senses: Aroma

Architect Anthony Pettorino shares his thoughts on how our sense of smell affects how we experience our built environment
Anthony Pettorino

Our memories are full of aromas

Following on from the introductory article Architecture and the Senses in the July issue, I thought I’d start with the least obvious of our senses when it comes to how we experience buildings. Strange it is that it was not until the 1990’s that any serious research took place regarding our sense of smell, and it was as recently as 2004 when biologists Richard Axel and Linda Buck where given a Nobel prize for getting to the bottom of how our olfactory system actually works at a molecular level.

It starts with odorant receptors in the nasal cavity. These respond to odorous molecules and send electrical signals to the brain which then converts these abstract signals into the experience I can only describe as the mind’s nose. A properly functioning olfactory system is essential for our life quality and of central importance to most species on the planet.

In addition to this, what we call taste is mostly smell. The tongue has a limited range of receptors that distinguish between sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Without smell the world of food and drink is a bland one indeed.

It’s hard to deny that our memories are full of aromas, and most of these are connected to events or specific places or buildings. Although it’s been a long time, I can still smell my Italian grandmother’s kitchen in Australia on a Sunday. A large pot of tomato sauce simmering away on the stove combined with a background of unburnt gas from her archaic and probably deadly kitchen stove. Then the pungent explosion of pepper, anise and mint as a mountain of fresh basil is added at the last minute. The final, intoxicating hit took place when finely grated parmesan was mixed through the steaming plate of spaghetti and sauce at the table. I could keep going... the cheap red wine mixed with sweet lemonade and so on. The point of the anecdote is that places and events are aromatic and that they create aroma memories.

Controlled aromas are being used increasingly in commercial and retail environments to manipulate our behaviour. Bread baking, coffee brewing, fish frying, all familiar smells distributed freely to get our appetites going and our wallets out of our pockets. I recently stayed in a hotel in Barcelona that commissioned a perfumery to create a unique scent to distribute through their ventilation system. It was the cause of much conversation and was of course for sale at reception. An unusual souvenir, a scent that triggers memories of a special stay on demand.

My default position for exploring a particular sensory system is to try to isolate it. For example, tasting food whilst blocking my nose or walking around with my eyes closed and ears blocked (comes with a safety warning). An architect colleague told me of a visit to the Institute for the Blind in Milan where he was led around the building blindfolded by a blind guide. The thing he remembers most was the constantly changing aromas.

Our homes and gardens have aromas, ones we can’t change and ones we put there deliberately. Sales of home fragrance products, such as scented candles, sprays and diffusers have been on the steady incline in the US, UK and Europe for the past decade and this looks to continue. This tells us that we value what we might call air quality in our homes. It also tells us that we get pleasure out of specific aromas and enjoy trying and testing them to find our personal favourites.

In designing our homes the starting point is the ambient aroma. Not easy to define or control, but a pure and clean background is a must. Condensation is to be avoided as it provides an environment for unwanted organisms, so humid or wet areas need to be well ventilated. The choice of finishes also has an effect. Natural fibres, timber, oils and stone can be have more pleasing aromas than certain synthetics such as some vinyls and plastics for example.

It may be surprising that the secret ingredient is odourless: Fresh, clean air, as it enables aromas to be experienced without contamination or distortion. In our domestic shelters, this is easily achieved by opening windows but the UK climate does not always make this a sensible solution.

In April’s article Three Golden Rules for an Energy Efficient House, rule number three refers to the use of heat recovery ventilation. This is a simple, low tech, whole house ventilation system that constantly replaces stale air with fresh outside air, but with the minimum amount of heat loss. Combine this with lots of insulation (Rule no. 1) and airtight construction (Rule no. 2) and when it comes to air quality, this is as good as it gets.

So when designing indoor and outdoor spaces, these invisible, aromatic considerations are as equally important as the things that can be seen by the naked eye.

Next month Anthony touches on touch; an exploration of the tactile environment.

Anthony Pettorino is the managing director of Pettorino Design Ltd in Witney and can be contacted at anthony@pettorinodesign.co.uk


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