you smelt it you dealt it – #LetsBlogOff

I think we’ve all been stuck in an elevator with a few too many people and suddenly a rancid odor makes it’s way into your nasal passages and now you’re looking around wondering “oh my god what did I EAT??!!” and “I hope no one else can smell that…”. But of course they can. It’s an elevator – a small, cramped, metal box with no ventilation….duh.

But that’s not really what we’re talking about here for this week’s Lets Blog Off. What we’re talking about is the link between the sense of smell and memory. Our sense of smell, while not on par with our furry friend Fido, is one of the most powerful senses we have available to us. The human nose is remarkable in that it not only allows us to discern scent – such as our elevator scene above – but it also aides in our sense of taste. Want to test it out? Next time you sit down to a meal, plug your nose and see how different food tastes. You’ll be amazed. Everyone else will laugh because you’re wearing a clothespin on your face, but whatever. It’s all in the name of science and learning right?

Ok, back to smelling stuff. We’ve all got those typical memories of Grandma’s apple/pecan/blueberry/snozeberry/random-whatever-berry pie cooling in the kitchen. And those smell memories are great; they remind us of family and home and feeling safe and secure and…well, hungry. But what about the effect our sense of smell can have on our memory of architecture? After all, architecture is experienced best with all of our faculties, not just sight or touch or hearing, but also smell and even taste.

Building materials require all of the senses – visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, and gustatory (I had to look that one up – don’t judge me). And our experience is changed not just by individual materials being employed in a building project, but also by various combinations of building materials. For example, polished concrete and glass will have a much difference effect on all our senses then rough, board formed concrete and gypsum board. From here you can use your own imagination on the myriad of material combinations that could elicit varying responses as we move through a space.

And all of these senses working together create a memory of our experience in a place. Think of the last time you went to a large cathedral church. The floors and walls were stone, some rough, others smooth. The sound of your foot steps reverberated off of almost every surface and echoed loudly high up in the vaulted ceilings. Light bounces through stained glass windows, the air feels cool and still. Perhaps you can even taste and smell the moisture in the air, a dampness that seems to hang suspended.

Another example would be your home. The colors are warm and inviting, finishes are smooth and comforting and soft. Perhaps there are exposed heavy timber framing that offers a tactile connection to the outdoors. You can even smell the sap that has long since dried on the wood, or the tongue oil used to polish the beams.

Our senses are constantly working together to create memories of all the people and places we’ve come in contact with. If you take one of those senses away, the experience becomes completely different. As architects we should be keenly aware of this and strive to create unique and wonderful experiences for the end user of our buildings so they take away inspired memories that stay with them and reveal a deeper sense of not just using a building, but being a part of it. After all, a building without people to experience it will fall down, crumble and blow away, but a building that encourages use and interaction will last forever.

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