Olfactory Report 8: Scent and Architecture * Catherine Haley Epstein

For La Biennale di Venezia’s 17th International Architecture Exhibition the curator Hashim Sarkis, Professor and Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, chose the theme “How Will We Live Together?”. Sixty nations participated to respond, where three new countries included Grenada, Iraq, and the Republic of Uzbekistan. The theme was bolstered by five sub-themes all exploring the plurality of human existence socially, politically and in nature. Among the research, the visuals, the haptic and the sounds, the olfactory spectrum was purposely used in at least six of the projects. Scent was used as a medium with varying effect as a storyteller, a teacher, a side effect, a mapping device, an homage, or a question mark pointing to a philosophical dilemma.  Scent in the story of architecture is no longer a decorative device, but a deeper, humane, immediate, and sensorial device.

Interior of the Taiwan pavilion, arched glass walls, interior are variety of branches from warm climate trees, square floor cushions are laid out in neat rows, presumably for meditation and to take in the exhibit. Trees are also seen outside the windows. Earthy tones of grey, dark green and warm and cool white.

Photo: Courtesy of National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts

Curated by the National Taiwanese Museum of Fine Art, the Taiwanese Pavilion recreated primitive and ritualistic origins of the Taiwanese people in their exhibit titled “Primitive Migration from-to Taiwan”. The overall architectural proposition sought to ask how Taiwan, with a current population of around 23 million, can maintain its unique way of living and its architectural culture while surrounded on all fronts by mountains, forests and oceans.

The scents were imbued into the objects on display versus being diffused into the air. The objects were among an installation full of light and soundscapes. Italian reviewer Marina Marques remarked that the essence in the pavilion fit the “return to nature” aesthetic that has bombarded us over the last several years.

Grid of eight images from different parts of Singapore with the geographic coordinates below each image. The scenes range from outdoor suburban, urban, taxi interior and crowded restaurant.

Photo: Courtesy of An Ode to Smell Project

In the Singapore Pavilion was “An Ode to Smell” where olfactory landscapes were curated to represent those in Singapore now extinct due to excessive air conditioning. The ongoing project, a collaboration between Hyphen Architects, Brian Khoo Zonghan and Mary Ann Ng, explores the relationship between humans and the tumultuous weather in Singapore. The climate and trends of de-odorization and olfactory manipulation are seen as the protagonist in the scent story, where outdoor olfactory experience is the focus. The project defends the “bad smells and extreme weather” and hopes to immortalize the Singapore landscape. They use scent mapping for where precise coordinates in the landscape are recorded and the olfactory quality preserved, then returned to the exhibit. Participants can order an olfactory postcard of one of the eight locations to send to a friend by scanning the QR codes on the bottles. From the project founders:

Ode to Smell is part of our ongoing research into the tumultuous relationship between Singapore and its weather. The way heat, rain, and humidity shape the percept of our environs and invigorates our senses are fast becoming obscure with the proliferation of Junkspace within our city. This continuum of air-conditioned spaces further fuels the aversion to the outdoors, turning us into de-sensitized beings and neutralizing our haptic appreciation of the surroundings. Are there then no merits to the Singapore weather?

Image of the interior of the Japan pavilion where parts of a deconstructed house are laid and arranged meticulously on a blue tarp. Two unrelated visitors are reviewing the exhibit.

Photo: Courtesy designboom, Curator: Kozo Kadowaki. Exhibitors: Jo Nagasaka, Ryoko Iwase, Toshikatsu Kiuchi, Taichi Sunayama, Daisuke Motogi, Rikako Nagashima

Commissioned by the Japan Foundation, the Japanese Pavilion features a house pending demolition where the loud scent of plaster, PVC, cut wood and dust are present. The “Co-ownership of Action: Trajectories of Elements” exhibit feels like a moment in time, where depending on your perspective may represent future potential, lost or found stories, dismantling, building and/or moving. The idea of flux and change are at the fore and given the man-made scents they remind us of our position in a move and how our intentions will lay bare the trajectory of natural and unnatural elements of our move. The architectural proposition is to reflect on reusability and sustainability in architecture and how things move within a system of making and destroying.

Three small blue bottles with handwriting on them lying on a bed of leaves, bark and twigs, almost forest floor looking.

Photo: Courtesy the artist Leanne Wijnsma

In the Dutch Pavilion a multi-sensory installation “Who is We?” architect Afaina de Jong and artist Debra Solomon question the dominant structure we inherit and inhabit, suggesting instead that urbanism is in fact female, indigenous, queer, and multispecies. For the entry of the larger exhibition artist Leanne Wijnsma designed a mix of curious, multi-species disinfectant gels. In “A Wildlife” she designed three disinfectant gels to be shared over the six months of the Biennale. First is a smell referencing “Amsterdam North with the addition of serotonin”, second was a moss scent with “hormones released by deer”, and a final scent of “essences released by the human body”. The scents were made for visitors to use as they entered the more sensory complex exhibition. Purportedly the hand sanitizing gel initiates the participant to experience the larger exhibit in a more sensorial way. Fragrance descriptions from the artist’s website:

Oily Mud
In spite of our health and safety-obsessive society, actinomycetes, the bacteria that grows in soil, boosts our serotonin and dopamine levels. ‘Oily Mud makes use of these fragrant microbes which are able to decrease feelings of stress, melancholia, and impulsive aggression.

Blind Collision
A male deer uses musk (the scent of their testosterone) to attract female mates. Blind Collision works with those animalistic and feral aromas; your chances of attracting a mate are increased, but keep in mind that musk isn’t for everyone…

Sour Tooth
This fragrance uses butyric acid, one of the strongest smelling microbes produced as a result of anaerobic fermentation. It is responsible for our typical body odour, and communicates information about each individual’s immune system. These microbes help to guide humans towards a genetically fitting partner.

Interior of Danish pavilion, with a view between two areas, the floor is cement and there is an organic pooling of water, black pipes line the rooms and halls towards the ceiling. In the distance in a room the black pipes continue and there is a peek of handmade planter shelves of raw, unfinished wood with bright green plants in them.

Photo: Courtesy CONN-ECT-ED-NESS, Danish Pavilion @ Venice Biennale 2021 – Photo by Hampus Berndtson for ArchiPanic

Conn-ect-ed-ness”, the exhibit at the Denmark pavilion is an ambitious and elegant display exploring the notion of our connectedness with nature and invisible systems and how the more we understand the connectedness the more chance we have to survive and live vibrantly in nature. The building lays out the intricate systems that allow for humans to have water in Venice, where the Venetian water flows through the systems that one can now see versus its invisible nature in everyday life. Among the pipes, tanks, irrigation systems, floating walkways and rainwater collection devices are possibilities to have tea, drink water and smell aromatic plants that are being watered by the Venice rainwater. In this installation we are present though are not at the center as humans generally consider themselves: we are forced to consider our part integrated into a larger system, not a human-centered system. The scent in this exhibition acts as a side effect, albeit a conscious one.

Interior of a white gallery space with a large class cube containing three rocks. Beyond the glass cell is a video screen on the white walls of the gallery.

Photo: Courtesy “Resurrecting the Sublime” @ Venice Biennale 2021, via Therme Art

Lastly, in the Central pavilion “Resurrecting the Sublime” is a new collaborative work by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, and a team of synthetic biologists at Ginkgo Bioworks led by Christina Agapakis, with the support of IFF Inc. As with previous works of Sissel Tolaas scent speaks for itself without fanfare and with consequence. The glass “extinction cell” where the scent may be experienced contains the scent of an extinct flower from the flowering tree Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock (Maui hau kuahiwi in Hawaiian). The flowering tree was last seen standing in Hawaii in 1912 and became extinct due to the cattle breeding on the island of Maui. In an interview with Hans Ulrish Obrist, Tolaas shares “….not only are extinction and nature part of evolution, but also the extinction of emotions is part of our ‘progress’; it’s not just about extinction in nature, but also about extinction in the human senses.”

Aside: In each of these productions there are many participants and creators, please visit the project websites to understand all of the contributors involved and further implications of the works.


—About the Author—

CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at catherine@mindmarrow.com with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!

Read Catherine’s previous Olfactory Report, Rhinoferocious, about those brave artists who work with and defend scent and perfumery.