how-to by The Editors

Designer Kate McLean on her smell walks, sensory maps, and our neglected senses

reading time 8 minutes

Kate McLean is an artist and designer who specializes in mapping smells. She organizes popular “smell walks” in cities around the world, from Singapore to New York, where she prompts her volunteers to note every scent they pick up, which she then visualizes in complex, ultra-stylish maps. This is more revolutionary than it sounds. McLean’s ongoing project is nothing less than a call to reconsider how we perceive the world — reawaken our neglected senses and smell the coffee, the roses, and everything else.

Whether it’s your ongoing project, Anicka Yi’s show at the Guggenheim, or Sissel Tolaas’s scent art, there seems to be a strong preoccupation with smell these days. How do you explain this heightened interest?
Not to be trite, but I think it’s a reaction to digital life. In the digital world, our sensory input is quite restricted. We are only exercising these two senses [seeing and hearing]. This increases the interest in our neglected senses — how they react and work together every day to form meaning in our lives. I think that’s largely responsible for the resurgent interest in smell.

Yeah, there’s no digital conduit for scents.
A couple of people have tried it. It’s a difficult technology to master because you’re trying to synthesize something that is phenomenally complex. For example, strawberries have about 350 different volatile molecular compounds — 350 different things you have to synthesize in order to create the idea of a strawberry. That’s why artificial strawberry, in a milkshake or something, always smells terrible. It’s actually far more nuanced and subtle and complex than that one synthesis could capture. Also, genetically it’s unlikely I’ll smell the same things that you smell. We can differentiate about a trillion different smells as a human beings based on the number of olfactory receptors that we’ve got.

Your popular “smell walks” are a way to get people to go out again and reconnect with that neglected sense. How do people respond to the experience?
The smell walks are a phenomenal way of just being aware that you have a sense of smell and it’s a lot better than you think. There’s been a fair bit of research out recently that shows that people are actually fairly good at smelling — we just haven’t drawn attention to it so much. That comes out in the smell walks. Most people tell me: oh my god, I didn’t realize I had a nose. It doesn’t happen instantly. Right after [the smell walk], they usually say something like, That was kind of cool. Thank you very much. The next day I see them and they say: oh my god, my life just changed. I actually am noticing all of the smells around me and it didn’t happen immediately, but having slept on it, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Their life becomes a smell walk! How does that change a person?
It really does change their experience of the whole world in a couple of ways. One is that when you smell walk, you actually move much slower, so you become much more aware of all the different sensory stimuli around you. You notice more about where they are as a result of smelling. So it’s almost as if olfaction causes the other senses to sort of sit up and take note and become much more aware of everything around us.

You get your volunteers to take note of everything they smell, and then you visualize those smells in your maps. What interests you in mapping something inherently fleeting and temporary?
Ancient cartographers brought the world into being through the creation of their maps. They got other people to understand that there was more to the world than what was around them. The smell maps try to do the same thing. It’s a reminder that this olfactory space exists. And it’s a call to action to go out and personally experience it. It’s not a depiction of something; it’s an imagination of something.

How did you start this project?
Like all of the best things in the world, it was a complete accident. Studying for a [design] MFA in Edinburgh, I started mapping the city by its textures and then physically making them into relief printed maps. I got a little bit stuck and I don’t know where to actually take that next. I ended up deconstructing Edinburgh by five different senses which is really interesting, but the smell one was most difficult and that’s the one that I’ve just stuck with ever since.

What defined Edinburgh as a smellscape?
Bear in mind that this is highly temporal, so this is Edinburgh in the spring of 2011 [laughs]. There are the amazing smells of the brewery, which permeate the city. You get off the train and the brewery’s about two miles away, but you can still smell it. So there’s this smell that’s sometimes described as Marmite, sometimes described as this snack called Wotsits, which is actually the yeast that comes from the malt extracts that are used in the brewing of the beer. So that’s a massive, overriding Edinburgh smell. And along with that come a lot of delicate notes of cherry blossoms in certain locations, fresh cut grass from the golf courses in the middle of the city. There’s a musty smell of cellars, from the darkness of the granite buildings as they are being renovated. There’s also boys toilets in primary schools, just to add a really lovely note. There’s a single hint of penguins at the zoo, which is a smell that comes out about three o’clock every afternoon. [Laughs.] Are you getting a picture of Edinburgh’s smellscapes?

I am. Listening to you is bringing back a lot of smells from the cities I’ve lived in.
Where have you lived and what have you smelled there?

I’ve lived in Berlin, London, New York and Los Angeles. To me, Berlin and London are most memorable for the types of alcohol they drink there. Los Angeles is notable mostly for its weed dispensaries, which have fairly anonymous store fronts but then you notice them because they smell like what they are — literal vaults of marijuana. I mostly remember unpleasant smells, unfortunately.
That’s quite common. Most people do. We tend to focus on the one’s we don’t like. And we rarely focus on the ones we do like, though they’re incredibly important to creating that sense of place.

I guess that’s because we’re not utilizing our sense of smell except when an unfortunate smell overwhelms us. Should people who design our cities consider smell more?
It’s very much of use to architects and urban planners in terms of thinking about what might happen if they build certain spaces that harbor smells, creating wind vortexes. New York was actually designed particularly to enable crosswinds to rid the city of its smells. So part of the grid system was actually based on smellscape design. So there’s a precedent for doing that and I do very much think that it is part of landscape and urban architecture and thinking about what the smellscape is likely to be as a result of the decisions that are made with planning.

Are there historical smell maps?
There are ones of Brooklyn and New York that depict the industrial smells. They look at it from an odor monitoring and control perspective. So, it’s more about negative smells. Mine are different as they focus on the good and the bad ones. It’s an exploration of the complexity and diversity, rather than saying, “your factories here — my home stinks as a result of it.” [Laughs.]

New Yorkers strike me as particularly interested in the smell of their city. The atmospheric rap songs from the mid-90s talked a lot about the smell of the streets and the hallways. Then there was that awesome article by Molly Young in New York magazine (“The Smelliest Block in New York”), which described a smell that you ended up tracking down and visualizing. Am I onto something?
Yes! All the best smell-mapping has come out of New York. There was the Gawker subway smells map that said you should be able to navigate your way around with your eyes closed based on the different wreaks that come out of different subways. There’s Matthew Frank, a water scientist, who made a pushpin google map of some 1910 sewer reports about Manhattan that indicated that the sewer underneath canal street actually smelled like banana oil. They put that down to some pain cleaner that was being sold and tipped down the drains. New Yorkers are just extremely vociferous about smell. It’s a joy being able to work there.

What’s the best-smelling city in your opinion?
I very much appreciated Singapore because it was a range of smells that I’d never come across before. Warmth and humidity, two things that smells reallylove, were both in abundance there. It was the prettiest smellscape. There was broccoli, and spices; Chinese pharmacies that have a smell I would describe as a dusty olive green, which is just sort of like a combination of teas and herbs; and the very subtle fake fragrances coming out of the malls. There’s an abundance of Jasmine growing absolutely everywhere, which releases beautifully in the dusk. Just these swirling currents of different smells.

I think that just listening to you is going to change the way I walk around. Thank you.
[Laughs.] Yes, please report back.

Cover image: NYC, Astor Place. 

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