Odiferous Conceptions of the City
Virginia Tech - WAAC, Alexandria, Virginia, USA
As multivalent approaches to air were replaced by narrower notions of space in twentieth century architecture, air was reduced to the purview of the mechanical engineer as a merely technical issue. This narrowing of the idea of air leads to overlooking, among others, the richly sentient topic of odor. In the modern bourgeois world, the goal became a complete absence of scent, to de-odorize, both for person and environment.
Already in the 1910s through the 1930s, Le Corbusier distinguished the impure "air of the cities" ("devil's air") from indoor, mechanically produced odorless "exact air" ("good, true God-given air") that can rescue "cities from the threat of air warfare." The modern ‘picture' window lost its relation to wind and Corbusier concluded that "the glass façade will be hermetic. No opening!" Corbusier never mentions odor in his writing on aerial urbanism, except in Journey to the East, upon encountering "ruffians" who "stink unbearably of garlic," which he ameliorates by holding a rose under his nose. Living air, with its distinct odors and rustlings, becomes a privilege of the underdeveloped world.
John Evelyn's Fumifugium; or the inconveniencie of the aer and smoak of London dissipated (1661), a proposal for London to eliminate coal pollution and plant a greenbelt, when reprinted in 1930 was interpreted within the narrow sense of urban air as a technological concern. Yet, this is a misunderstanding of Evelyn's "fragrant & odiferous" urbanism that advocates realizing air's many aspects of living well; including health, beauty, profit and even one's ability to "converse with good angels." Rather than reducing air to the uni-dimensional isomorphism of space, Evelyn's tract should be read in its original meaning as recovering air's multi-sensorial mediation between the visible and the invisible, pointing toward the richness of aeromantic architecture.