Marcel Proust is said to have been in love with Parma: he was capable of waking his friend’s daughter up in the middle of the night just to have her say the name of this city. A shame that he never actually went to Parma. No matter, the name alone was enough to take him there in his mind, this too is travelling. A city is not just bricks and mortar. It is ideas, memories, smells, flavors. Parma has always been a city of fragrances. Since the time of Marie Louise of Habsburg, Napoleon Bonaparte’s second wife, who loved to grow violets, right through to the globetrotting Baron Carlo Magnani, who in 1916 created the first cologne, called Acqua di Parma. This brand, today headquartered in Milan and part of the LVMH group since 2001, this year launched its new Home Collection—ten fragrances in candles and room diffusers, ‘olfactory interior design’.
While a city can be contained in its name, a home is not just a house. As a polytechnic student I used to dream of a History of architecture for the blind. It was my rather paradoxical way of saying that the art of construction is not just shape or image. A few years ago, Anna Barbera wrote a book on the subject, Stories of architecture through the senses. In a nutshell, what she says is that places arouse sensations, they activate our senses. The bottom line is that architecture is such an all-encompassing experience; not just design, not just appearance—it is also touch, hearing and smell. In its continual pursuit of new frontiers, avant-garde twentieth-century architecture was well aware that it had to conceive a new architecture that was also sensorial in order to go beyond the limits set by the Academies.
Richard Neutra, a student at Loos in his youth who then went on to work with Mendelsohn and F.L. Wright, in 1949 wrote that we should pay attention to all the non-visual aspects of our environment His was an architecture of the senses, which sought the caress of the Californian sun, the splashing of pools in which to cool down, the shade of pergolas. An architecture that seemed to want to dematerialize, disappear, a bit like Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece in Brno, Villa Tugendhat, in 1928, where the external windows could be completely lowered, breaking down the physical barriers to turn the house and its gardens into a single whole. Not a new idea for the Mediterranean culture of we Italians, accustomed as we are to keeping our windows open, to drinking our coffee on the terrace and living at one with the great outdoors as we inhale the fragrances rising up from typical Mediterranean vegetation, the woods, the coast.
Mint, lemon, lavender, rosemary, vanilla, cardamom. A palette of essences, each one triggering the synapses in our brain. Each fragrance is a memory link, taking us back to Proust again. Monuments may disappear, cities may be redesigned, but the persistence of our memories attaches itself to apparently more weightless things. But, when nothing subsists of an old past, writes Proust, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.
Building and memory. In a fragrance. Our own everyday experience backs this up. Each house has its own odor, each odor reminds us of a house we lived in. Not by chance do we say “it smells like home”. The words ‘olfactory interior design’ could very well be used to describe the new collection from Acqua di Parma. Just like every piece of furniture or utensil is an element embodying the personality of whoever furnished it, every home is then characterized by a certain fragrance that defines it even more than its appearance. The best contemporary designers, mindful of the maestros’ teachings, know this all too well. Buildings that disappear, the Fondation Cartier by Jean Nouvel in Paris, or that become invisible like the Tree Hotel by Tham & Videgård Arkitekter in northern Sweden, camouflaged like the home in the countryside around Rucavas in Latvia by the firm Archispektras, and, at the same time seek their identity in smells—the resin of the wood used for the Swiss pavilion by Peter Zumthor at the Expo in Hannover, the super-oxygenated air in the Blu Bar by Diller+Scofidio, conveyors of a more intense, more pervasive emotional memory of places.
Fragrances and architecture have been linked since history began. From the ancient Egyptians who used to burn Kyphi to communicate with the gods, to the Manchu dynasty and its imperial palaces with their fragrant cedarwood paneling; from the Taoist geomantic philosophy of Feng Shui, where the aromatic component plays a fundamental role intensely studied by today’s western interior designers, to the Japanese art of Koh-Doh—the way of fragrance—the technique of ‘listening’ to incense that was considered to be the highest level of development of the sense of smell in the imperial court; from seventeenth-century France, where Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet, was one of the precursors of room fragrances to Jean François Laporte, the first to relaunch perfumes for the home in France in the seventies, who used to say: A fragrance must highlight a room without ever invading it.
Now that ‘Fashion design’ and ‘Sound design’ are quite acceptable courses at university, who knows, maybe the young students at my polytechnic will soon be studying a new subject? We could call it Environmental perfume design. Teaching how a room’s fragrance becomes the architecture of memory.