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The Smell of the City

Among the installations at the Ecological Urbanism exhibit at Harvard's Graduate School of Design is a collection of smells from 200 Mexico City neighborhoods.
April 19, 2009, 11am PDT | Tim Halbur
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"An artist named Sissel Tolaas gathered air samples from 200 neighborhoods in Mexico City and bottled each of these in a tiny glass bottle. She then asked 2,000 people to sniff and record their responses. Those responses, which are carefully labeled on the bottles, are as delicately discriminatory as those of a wine connoisseur.

"Rusty, sweet and old," is one. "Pleasant, aromatic, light, perfume, flowers, vanilla," is another. A huge video screen shows us the noses of people sniffing and talking - "TALKING NOSE" being Tolaas's title for the whole production. A map on the wall shows you where each of the 200 neighborhoods is located in Mexico City. There's a do-it-yourself scratch-and-sniff panel, too.

Sound silly? But there's an argument behind it. Tolaas thinks we've over-civilized ourselves to the point that we've lost touch with most of our senses. She says smell has been repressed in modern Western culture. Smells are associated with degeneracy, as in such phrases as "He smells," so we ban them from our cities and our lives. There are, Tolaas says, 10,000 perceptible smells. We've cut ourselves off from a richly sensory part of life."

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Published on Sunday, April 12, 2009 in The Boston Globe
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