John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Sniffing around a new Bay Area exhibit devoted to the smells of places from the modern day to the Middle Ages.
What did Paris smell like in the mid-18th century? Try skunked red wine, wet cats, and gingivitis-tinged sputum, all bubbling in an open sewer on a record-setting summer's day.
I can say this with some authority as I recently jammed my schnoz into "Paris 1738," a scent that recreates the fetid odors of the olden city. France's Christophe Laudamiel made the unusual odor as a tribute to the novel Perfume, whose murderous antihero was born in a fish market amid the stench of overflowing gutters and unwashed bodies. Now, thanks to a nose-tingling exhibit in downtown San Francisco, anybody can smell how the City of Love may have once reeked – and thank their lucky nostrils they live in an era with hot showers and shampoo.
"Urban Olfactory," which runs until March 31 at SPUR, is a history lesson made entirely of smells: pine and cedar pulled from the imagined court of Louis XIV, spice-laden air over the Strait of Bosphorus in the Middle Ages, river water and hashish of modern-day Rotterdam. Those are the ones people might actually, you know, wear. There's also the New Jersey Turnpike during a rainstorm, air pollution in San Francisco, and fresh manure in the French countryside. All these perfumes are presented in a line of lidded vitrines; visitors take a whiff of one, then go breathe into a glass of coffee beans to clear the nose.
David Gissen and Irene Cheng, the exhibit's architectural-historian curators from the California College of the Arts, searched far and wide to amass this surreal collection of odors. They tapped into the collections of rock-star perfumers like Laudamiel – who fabricated "Paris 1738" using "cassis note for urine, and [pyrazine] molecules for the other sewage effects" – and solicited tips from odor-obsessed writers like Chandler Burr, the one-time perfume critic for The New York Times. Gissen and Cheng hope their show will provoke visitors into considering how a place's smells change over time, and in fact sometimes push that very change forward.
The intrepid John Metcalfe, taking a whiff of air pollution.
"One point of the exhibit is to think about how odor is a historical force ... how smells in cities can motivate transformation," says Gissen. For instance, the chaotic sights and smells of the 19th-century urban environment paved the way for the rise of "bacterial cities," or societies that one scholar says value "modes of social discipline based upon ideologies of cleanliness" and a "rational model of municipal managerialism." "Odor definitely motivated ideas about the planning of cities," says Gissen.
The most pungent, sinus-searing scent in the show suggests how smells can trigger powerful social reactions. It's called "Pollution," and it hearkens back to the hazy years before air-quality regulations. One snort and I could see why governments crafted anti-smog laws; the acrid stink, like a Hefty bag overflowing with cigarette butts, was so strong you could almost chew it.
"It's supposed to capture the ambient smell of burnt hydrocarbons in the air – a very disturbing smell," Gissen says. "When I first smelled it, I almost cried. In one moment you sense all this environmental degradation that was going on." (If you are an insane person and would like to buy "Pollution" – or simply punish someone for Valentine's Day – Dale Air sells it in batches up to $432 per kilogram.)
Why would perfumers spend time developing a miasma that repels people as effectively as rancid seal blubber? Gissen believes there are two reasons, the first being to create something different. The perfume industry is so much about sales and attraction and beauty, he says, that it's probably a thrill to make a scent that's none of those things. The second is to make people think. A good example of that is the show's "L'Essence de Mastenbroek," a not-unpleasant aroma inspired by Dutch polder town dating to the 14th century that's dealing with encroaching development.
"Say you're walking down the street, and your friend says, 'What's that smell?'" Gissen explains. "You say, 'Oh, it's this historic landscape that's threatened with destruction." Blammo, conversation instantly won – although it's uncertain how much longer your friend will stick around, seeing how your body is emanating odors of "grass" and "livestock."
For a gas, I asked Gissen to describe what the things visitors are supposed detect in the exhibit's bevy of perfumes. Here's his take:
• Glass: "the cleaning fluids used to keep it transparent."
• Foul breath: "depends upon what fouled it."
• Unswept gutters: "that definitely smells like poop, with a slight chemical scent."
• Sir Robert Borden, eighth prime minister of Canada: "cigars, leather, and old man."
John Metcalfe's take on Sir. Robert Borden's particular odor.
The last one's not a joke: Borden got his own "olfactive reconstruction" for a 2011 parks project in Edmonton. I can assure any Canadians reading this he smells perfectly respectable, like a cognac-soaked library of significant books: