I spent Sunday afternoon at Kiasma, Helsinki’s contemporary art museum. There was a lot to love there. One installation in particular, by Hilda Kozári, was appropriate for this blog. It’s called Air. Kozari created three acrylic bubbles, each representing a different city: Helsinki, Budapest, Paris. She worked with Parisian perfume designer Bertrand Duchaufour to develop a scent for each city, which is then piped into the bubbles. You stand underneath and take in the smell. Film footage is projected onto the acrylic, creating ghost-like images that you can barely discern to go along with the wafting aroma. Kozári seemed to be making the point that sometimes we need our eyes to take a back seat and let our other senses lead.
I experimented with historical city smells when I was working at the Old State House Museum in Boston. I created “smell stations” for things like the 1919 Molasses Flood, the Fire of 1711, and the original 17th-century town market that used to stand on the site of the Old State House. These smell stations are one of the most popular parts of the museum’s hands-on history exhibition. It was a challenge to come up with effective methods for harnessing the smells—not every scent that I wanted to include was feasible. I stuck to pure, one-note smells. It didn’t even occur to me to try a combination.
I really like the idea of Kozári’s Air. But I have to admit that while all three bubbles did smell differently to me, I couldn’t have told you which one was which city if I hadn’t read it on the label. Kozári was going for a multi-note, complex scent, which meant that they all smelled manufactured, like perfume instead of natural odor. My cousin was with me, though, and she had lived in Paris for a semester as an undergrad. She identified the City of Lights immediately because its scent included roses, and therefore provoked a powerful sense memory of wandering the streets in spring.
When I first moved to Helsinki it took me about a week to get used to the smell. It didn’t smell bad, just different. Sort of, well, cold. And (you’ll laugh) a little like beets. Now it just smells normal.
And you, dear reader? What does your favorite city smell like?