URBAN SMELLS - BETWEEN ODORS AND URBAN DEPTH

The outdoors is threatened today by two indoors phenomena: the shopping malls which offer product variety with climatic comfort and personal safety, and the internet which offers an alternative arena for social interaction

The outdoors is threatened today by two indoors phenomena: the shopping malls which offer product variety with climatic comfort and personal safety, and the internet which offers an alternative arena for social interaction. The advantage of the shopping mall lies in its financial capability which can harness and manipulate the market powers. Its technique - use of urban principles to create alternative street-forms. Its problem - synthetics.

The advantage of the internet lies in its limitless availability of potential partners. Its technique - offering the users the possibility of presenting themselves selectively, or of utterly hiding behind a fabricated identity. Its problem is that it replaces human senses with virtual feelings.

In an age when we can hover over any street on earth (earth.google.com), it is not hard to imagine a situation where one enters a cafe in Paris, finds a “friend” and performs a commandment. The only thing that might distinguish this rather synthetic act from the real thing is the touch, the smell, and the magic combination between them.

One can claim of course that any change in the concept of space is legitimate, as long as it expresses the needs of the society which created it. But, from an urban standpoint - one that aims to return outdoor activities to the urban streets - the abandonment of open spaces presents a real problem. This is not the place to discuss the powers that result in the urban product - politics, fashions, economics, demographics and even corruption. However, it is precisely the vast variety of sources which provides reality with its multi-colored authentic aspect - an authenticity whose most significant drive is randomness.

Both mall planners and internet programmers, virtually free of limitations and meticulous in planning, are making every effort to color their products with authenticity. This is clearly an indication that the built environment still possesses an advantage over them. Moreover, the fact that both phenomena - the mall and the internet - stem from open space and result in it, indicates that it is still an indispensable platform for social interaction.

The fact that almost every plan aspires to adopt the urban code, whose center is locality, indicates that authenticity is place-related. However, in most cases this aspiration results in synthetic products that do not provide any tangible sense of locality. The reason is that in the “global village” sources of inspiration, technologies and building materials are all imported, and thus only blur any local identity.

The lesson is that authentic touch does not stem from  one design alone, but rather from an accumulation of  many random intentions.

Focusing on this idea, Italian architect Mirko Zardini suggests in his book “Senses of the City, an Alternative Approach to Urbanism” that urbanists should pay attention to the qualities of space, rather than its quantified ones, such as form, style or scale.

Zardinis suggestion is not new, of course, since already in the 60s several models were developed to describe places by means of sensual perception (Kevin Lynch, 1956). However, these attempts preempted the virtuality threat, and they tended to focus on how built-space looks, rather than its smells or sounds.

Although there is no real urban theory in the book, the message is clear. Zardini actually suggests that the aroma of a place encompasses almost all of its aspects - from natural smells like vegetation, water and land, through building material - wood, steel, concrete or asphalt, to the activities that occur in it.

No one needs reminding that certain places can be recognized by their odor - coffee houses, gyms, perfume stores, boutiques. However, Zardini sharpens the idea that while one can argue with form, it is harder to argue with smell. There is no need to go further than the old city of Jerusalem to realize that the more the place is charged with content, the richer its aroma.

And so, without too much risk, one can state that the aroma of a place expresses its urban depth. Who does not recognize the dynamic odor of the London underground, the home feeling of the smell of coal, or the urban image that is carried by the smell of fish-and-chips. Christmas in Berlin smells of punch, while Christmas in Wadi Nisnas in Haifa smells like bitter olives, kababs and chestnuts.

And even deeper - Manhattan smells of urban ingenious. So do Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and even Neve Tzedek. The Flea Market reeks of a special combination of varnish and second hand cloths. Florentine neighborhood smells like a dizzying mixture of carpentries, upholsteries and ethnic restaurants. The old central bus station in Tel Aviv smells of shawarma mixed with the fear of the immigration police, and the new one - of a public urinal and bus fumes. The Mann auditorium used to smell like culture, and now it stinks of the pettiness of the municipality. The smell of chocolate at the Elite Junction still refuses to give in to the office towers that now surround it; the marina in Herzilya smells like coffee and cake, while the entrance to the city is sewers mixed with garlic.

Realizing the trick, many cities today encourage the use of perfume to replace their negative aromatic identity with something more positive and hopeful. Special internet sites (search: smells of places) enable one to “smell” photos of places, to add, erase and invent any idea. But then again, what one sees one cannot necessarily smell.





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