Scent & Architecture: Evocative structures

Looking down Jin Mao Tower

Musings on the parallels between Perfume and Architecture

An extract from Daniel Defoe‘s Journal of the Plague Year, 1722, is quoted in the book and he wrote: “If we came to go into a church when it was anything full of people, there would be such a mixture of smells at the entrance that it was much more strong, though perhaps not so wholesome, than if you were going into an apothecary’s or druggist’s shop.” He goes on to describe the different smells that would be encountered.


Invisible Architecture: Experiencing places through Smell”, by Anna Barbara

Full of altruism, I decided to volunteer for Open City, the charity that runs the Open House London weekend.  This year doors open on the weekend of 22-23 September.  So, if you’re a history buff, an architecture geek or just plain nosy and want a peek ‘behind the scenes’ of normally private or a restricted-access buildings, then check out the link to find out which ones are opening their doors to reveal their secrets during this inspiring weekend.

Architecture and scent – unlikely bedfellows you may say?  I am not so sure, everything, when you give it closer inspection is inextricably linked.  Lets get our lateral-thinking caps on and a  moment of your time to explore.  What words or images spring to mind when you mention Architecture – it provokes many a discussion of likes, dislikes, of impact on function and environment – like our sense of smell it can provoke a strong response, be subjective and dependent on personal taste.

I wonder, would your taste in architecture be reflective of your taste in perfume, for example, could you match your fragrance to your favourite buildings?  Do your sensibilities lean to modern, romantic,  classical, victorian, futuristic/surreal?

  • Are you a fan of the brutalist structures of the Southbank and Barbican or
  • Pugin’s Gothic fantasy that is the Houses of Parliament

    Houses of Parliament
    (credit: wikipedia)

  • The graceful lines of St Pauls cathedral
  • The inside-out boldness of the Lloyds building
  • A flamboyant and decorative Gaudi

    flamboyant and arresting – Gaudi’s window treatment

  • The metallic + glass behemoths of Canary Wharf?
  • The petite candy coloured mews houses hiding out in the narrow streets of Notting Hill, Kensington and the like.

pastel pied-a-terres

Have you noticed the link between scent and architecture, how we  experience buildings through our sense of smell?  It seems on the whole it may actually be the activity associated with the building, rather the building itself that gives rise to the odours associated with it.  The activity, the passage of time, our experience and then the building with its scent – all unite, intermingling to become one, and to be embedded in our psyche forever.

For example, sacred sites and the interaction between religion and smells, with its incense and candles, the smell of rice-paper-thin hymn books, the smell of time and people embedded in the walls and furniture.

Pagoda with candles and incense

Bookshops (notably antiquarian and second hand) Libraries – ink, polish, wood, papers, leather, glue, dust, the smell of inspiration, brain-power and the anticipation of knowledge held within (what would that smell like …sulphur/sweat?).


We may perceive the final results in Architecture as solid and tangible the other, Scent, as ephemeral and intangible, yet the ideas and process that create the final result actually could be transposed.  Many an idea for a building has been imagined upon a whimsy or a metaphysical idea and many perfumes have been created based on a tangible idea, a person …they both share so much in their metaphorical cross-over and on many levels, such as:







  • Foundation  vs base (notes of a fragrance)
  • The visible building or structure/heart (notes of a fragrance)
  • Roof vs top (notes of a fragrance)






Consider the materials that are used, are they locally produced, what is their environmental impact both from the source and in final ‘product’; why are they chosen? Behind each ‘ingredient’ there is a story, a history, a sense of traceability.



  • Building: woods, metals, concrete, rubber, glass, grasses, muds, sourced from local or exotic locales;
  • Perfume: flowers, woods, spices, herbs, resins,  grasses, roots etc sourced globally/locally.

    For a sensory experience check out the new installation at the Serpentine Pavilion, with its aromatic cork ‘basin’



What a corker! Serpentine Pavilion by Herzog+de Meuron and Ai Wei wei
(Photo credit: Iwan Baan)


Texture + shape

The language we use for aromatic descriptions overlap with the textures of a building; smooth+cool (marble, steel); warm, resinous woods, varnished and polished, metallic, rough, spiky:


‘Ridges’ – amazingly textured wall

Like a perfume, a building  possess the power to create an atmosphere and the evoke a sense of a time+place.  There are particular buildings that are synonymous with their landscape and representative of an era in history (like a fragrance or smell), they become representative of the passage of time; the imprints of activities and people it is witness to; such as pubs, churches, shops, schools which may each have their own aromatic identity.

Majestic interior of Canterbury Cathedral


Perfumery uses many metaphors and adjectives related to architecture and the tangibility of the physically built environment.  I have found when others (as well as myself!) describe scent, the language used to describe it and how it makes them feel usually overlaps with language relating to sense of space,  and of rooms or buildings, for example elevated, airy, spacious – like a high ceilinged room -, oppressive, opulent, cavernous (underground cellar); also,  “like a morrocan bazaar”, “reminds me of Temples and places of worship” or “the inside of a Victorian apothecary” (as one might imagine it!) ..etc!


Composition + Function

They share a sense of balance of composition; like architecture, perfume construction likes to challenge perception.


Erwin Wurm – House Attack

A fragrance, if well structured has ‘a journey’ as the odour molecules merge and dry down, evolving over time to reveal its secrets and its character – it tells a story.  A building or structure tells a story, allowing you to travel; either journeying with your eyes leading you to a focal point or to physically take you to an end point.

DelaWarr Pavilion – a futuristic spiralling staircase

Lloyds Building Staircase – like a metallic centipede!
(Credit: wikipedia)




Hmm, lots of food for thought.  Does anyone have a FAVOURITE building or related scent memory – I would love to hear about it!

In the meantime, I am prepping myself for the weekend, lots of notes to read.  I will be at the Royal Geographic Society on Saturday and The Brunel Museum on Sunday (they have a great timetable of activities planned).

Hope you get to visit one of the amazing gems on offer.



Further info and a bit of fun:

NB: there is a Perfumer who trained as an Architect, I have seen his perfumes advertised in Sunday magazines, but the name escapes me for the moment, drat, typical!



About The Perfume Mistress

"If the eyes are the windows to your soul, then the nose is the doorway to your imagination" The Perfume Mistress Hello, by day I am a clinical aromatherapist and tutor, with over 10 years of working with natural materials and essential oils, by night I delve into the art of botanical perfumery, reading and smelling all things olfactory. I have set up the 'Nosetrodami Club' offering scentsory talks, discussions and master-classes on all topics and themes olfactive. I also offer one and two day workshops in the art of natural perfumery, natural and organic body & skincare. My inspirations range from the mundane to the metaphysical, the hum-drum to the hyperbolic which you may see reflected in my posts.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Landscape, Language, London events, Religion, Scent memories, Texture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s