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Architecture & Smell: Kindred Bedfellows

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB


I recently read an article by a Finnish Architect, Juhani Pallasmaa, describing his child memories. To him, his best memories evolved around the smell of the home. He believes that every home and residence have their own unique smells.


This caught my attention, and I did some research. The sense of smell is among our most powerful connections to memory reconstruction, even more than sight and hearing. It seems that our sense of smell is connected directly to brain parts that process emotions and memory. When we smell, a specific scent is sent to the limbic part of the brain. This process can be so powerful in invoking past experiences. When we encounter any old smell, such as a leathery shoe, it may evoke a past experience and therefore it triggers an emotional response.


What does this have to do with architecture? Our brain is a library of sensory connections and smell helps to store those memories. Think of fresh cut grass that might remind us of childhood summer days, or the smell of bread baking that reminds us of a family gathering or a specific person in the kitchen. Naturally, the range of situations affect everyone differently. One scent may trigger a pleasant memory or an unpleasant experience.


As architects, we tend to think primarily in visions of structure, function, history or entertainment. By incorporating smell, as part of the solution, the sensory channels all get used.


All of us know that restaurants often blow the kitchen aromas out onto the street to gain our interest. Department stores place their cosmetic and perfume counters at the front to capture customers. Even museums have been known to incorporate scents in exhibits to enhance the experience.


We also know that excessively strong odors can disturb physically and psychologically our comfort, causing eye, nose or throat irritation. They can also affect our mood. The smell of a damp, attic or smelly basement can stay with us forever.


In the home, integrating natural products, relaxing colors, textures, lighting, and, of course, smells, can enhance the environment. Natural materials in the home, such as stone, fabrics, and wood products emit scents that can suddenly give one a safe feeling.


The greatest interest might be in fragrant landscape gardens as a part of the architectural design and environment. These release pleasant spells in memorable frequencies. There’s no question that the sense of fresh flowers can create a welcoming sense of place. Citrus fruits and peppermint can promote alertness and even focus.


The concept that environments can improve people and generate healthy experiences is not new. Neuroscience has shown conclusive evidence, that the smell inside of comforting materials, activate memory regions of the brain, and are all aspects of architecture. Going further is the concept of Neuroarchitecture where environments can be improved through incorporating calming smells and natural materials.


Here’s a couple thoughts:

  1. Incorporate natural furniture materials, real leather, natural fabrics, such as linen and cotton, and wood. Sometimes wood finishes can emit good fragrances but be careful.

  2. Incorporate fragrant landscaping, wherever possible. Rosemary, lavender, and others are all part of the fabric up a Home and Gardner.

  3. Avoid high, fragrant sense. this might work in a Buddha temple and may be good for some and annoying to others. Don’t overdo it.

  4. Any provided smells need to be authentic and not artificial. Feck delivery can be counterproductive.

Incorporating holistic, sensual perceptions, is not only for our residences, but can help expand and enhance healthcare, community spaces, and government buildings, which need all the help they can get.


Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB remembers his childhood redwood grove when in a lumberyard.

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