Sunday, January 18, 2009

Space Time and Perfume


Modern architectural theory was first established by a few seminal texts which included Siegfried Giedion’s Space, Time and Architecture published in 1941. In it he outlined concepts that formed the foundation of a new aesthetic that broke away from the architecture of the Beaux Arts tradition. He argued that abstract notions of space and time were paradigms of this new design. These revolutionary concepts have now become intrinsic to our knowledge of contemporary architecture. Today, we take for granted the notion that we experience space in time. Although we perceive space visually, we actually scan with our eyes and build composites from snapshots of our memory.

So how do we experience perfume? There are strong parallels between how we experience the visible world of the built environment and the invisible construct of our aromatic surround. As a perfumer, one has to be aware of this non-visible world and its potential to impact our spatial understanding in subtle but direct ways.

Aromas are experienced in time creating scent memories that help us remember and orient ourselves in space. When we step into a room we are first guided by our visual and auditory senses. But what about our olfactory impressions? When we transition from one space to another we become aware of odors. These odors help our brain differentiate between safety and danger. If we “smell danger”, our brain prevents us from going any further. However, if a smell is benign, our brain permits us to enter, which is why the inviting smell of baking cookies is so important if you want to sell your home.

Once our initial impression of a space is determined our noses go into “sleep” mode and we are no longer aware of further environmental odors. This anosmia is one of the most baffling phenomenae of our olfactory sense. Why does the nose shut down? Why aren’t we always in a state of smell awareness? The area of the nose that contains odor receptors is directly adjacent to the brain. Through each inhalation we are literally drawing molecules of our immediate environment practically into our brains. Perhaps a likely answer is that our brains are not equipped to handle scent 24/7. We need to preserve that function so that we can detect danger when it is truly necessary. Perhaps our brains evolved to be more visually aware and our olfactory sense ended up taking a back seat.

There is no doubt, however, that there is a relationship between scent and memory. Scientific studies have shown that scent memory is 60% accurate while visual memory is accurate only 15% of the time. Our visual memory is highly susceptible to interpretation while our olfactive memory tends to be more precise and “objective”. So why don’t we rely more on our noses? Perhaps this anosmia makes the nose ultimately less reliant than the eyes, or perhaps our ability to remember scent makes us less likely to constantly have to smell them.

These questions often surface when I’m working on a perfume. Scents can anchor memories of people, places and events or can prod the imagination. What interests me as a perfumer is how the imagination can be evoked, invoked or even provoked. Essences are the material building blocks of a perfume and each has individual qualities that are complex and layered. Many essences also have strong historical and cultural associations, like the rose. However, these essences can also be viewed as abstract elements. The rose, for example, has simultaneous qualities of luminosity and darkness. Instead of viewing it in the traditional sense as a “floral”, it can be used to lighten or darken a blend, depending on how it is combined with other essences.

It is analogous to the use glazing in architecture. A window can be viewed as a functional element for light and ventilation, as a decorative or compositional element in a fa├žade or as an abstract element such as a curtain wall. The latter use of glass in modern architecture allowed us to view glazing as a means of creating an effect, one of lightness and openness in a building. The Glass House by Philip Johnson (left) is a great example of how curtain wall construction can form transparent walls that allow the structure to become a part of nature. Essences can also create effects of transparency, luminosity, porosity or conversely effects of darkness, chiaroscuro and solidity.

For me, the challenge of perfumery is to create blends that bring us into the architecture of our minds where we can experience space in its purest abstraction. One should be able to enter a perfume and explore its arrangement and structure, experience its effects. Natural perfumes evolve over time; as top notes evanesce, other layers are revealed and unfolded. This unfolding is like walking from one room to another where rooms are connected but have different qualities. Architecture deals with the external structuring of space while perfumes evoke an inner construct. This is where perfume and architecture share a common ground, as a means of experiencing space in time.