Urban smell enthusiasts
Warm air vents, Toronto © Victoria Henshaw
And so to my final (slightly delayed, apologies folks) update on my recent visit to Canada and to turn attention not to the intellectual content of the stimulating smell sessions I attended in Vancouver, the new ideas I was exposed to at the EDGE Lab, Toronto, and the wonderful people I met on the way… but to what I sensed as part of the journey.
My Canadian adventure truly kicked-off in a jet-lagged fog up in Whistler, host to most of the Alpine events at the 2010 Winter Olympics and an approximate two hour coach journey from Vancouver. I was joined by sensory designer extraordinaire and friend Kate McLean, also over for the ‘Designing with Smell: Challenges, Techniques and Perceptions’ session at the Design Principles and Practices Conference. We decided to start the trip with a couple of days snowboarding.
How did Whistler feel? First, not as cold as I imagined; although freezing up at the top of the mountains, the resort itself was fairly temperate and certainly warm enough to get by with only a few layers of padding. Despite this, snow lay on the ground and piled up next to the road, although it was slushy and sticky particularly by the late afternoon. The sky was dark, grey and ominous, the sounds muffled and heavy, and the buildings had a Disney quality about them, but that said, I liked it! The layout of the town/resort certainly differs from European counterparts, with some wide and busy roads, influenced both by north-American transport planning traditions, but also the geography of the area which allows you access the resort at a pretty low level (675m above sea level), with the real altitude being gained by jumping on the cable-cars which lift you up and out of resort to Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, both 2000m+.
Image taken up on Whistler Mountain © Victoria Henshaw
Up high, you either enter the clouds themselves, feeling the biting and howling winds and snow-storms that threaten to simultaneously freeze and tear the very skin off your face, or in contrast, rise above the clouds into glorious sunshine, blue skies and dazzling white snow that warm your body and soul. The most amazing experience had to be our ride from one mountain to another in the Peak 2 gondola linking the peaks of the two mountains. The views as we dipped from one peak above the clouds, down through the mist and above the huge trees at one side, above the valley, then back up and out of the cloud to the other was magical, ghostly, spiritual even, and certainly one of the most impressive views I have ever seen. The mountain side bars were cosy, warm, wooden and smelling of apple cider.
Views from the Peak 2 Express Gondola, Whistler © Victoria Henshaw
But what of the Whistler smellscape? I felt that rather than trapping the smells in a kind of ‘inversion effect’, the heavy wet atmosphere in resort appeared to dampen the smells in many ways, although vehicular fumes might also have been exacerbating the effect. That said, the mountains, vegetation and rocks were always there providing the backdrop smellscape, or what I term in ‘Urban Smellscapes’ as the ‘macro-smellscape’ of the area. On a more localised basis (the ‘micro-smellscape’) the town’s shops, bars, spas and many, many Starbucks provided blasts of smells although these were limited, never very strong, never concentrated enough to shock or stop you in your tracks. Even indoors at the board-hire store, the premises were light, open, modern and without any noticeable odours – a sharp contrast to the smells of wood, wax and sweaty feet synonymous with the low-ceilinged basement ski-hire shops of the European resorts.
Vancouver’s chunky aesthetic © Victoria Henshaw
Vancouver, what a beautiful city! The clunky lego-brick, egg-box style apartments with their vast, windows, built rapidly throughout the late eighties and nineties, might be experiencing issues now with crumbling concrete structures (or so the word on the street led me to believe) but my god, I loved that chunky aesthetic! The weather though was positively barmy at around +9 degrees and although I would usually anticipate such warmth to encourage a stronger smellscape, I felt the smells were again, a little subdued. A co-presenter and smell lover, artist Victoria J E Jones writes of her experiences of the city in her blog update here, but for me, the smells that stood out were first the localised smell of a particular plant growing outside a residential block that I walked past on a deep sloping road down towards the sea. It stopped me in my tracks – what was that smell, it took me a while to place it, but when I did, it was undoubtedly the same smell as Beechams Hot Lemon and Honey – and when I mentioned my experience to other brits at the conferences, some of them had also detected it, how weird! A sure-fire vegetative ‘smellmark’ of Vancouver to take with me!
Vancouver’s vegetative smellmark © Victoria Henshaw
Vancouver’s Chinatown too was not particularly dominated by smells with its wide-open roads and low level buildings, although the sights and sounds were very different from downtown Vancouver, with a local Chinese population and related services, restaurants, a Chinese garden, symbols, calligraphy and of the obligatory arch. The sounds, as you headed across Chinatown towards Gastown were of traffic and people, some homeless, walking around or sat down, men singing or shouting loudly to themselves or at people passing by. The area didn’t possesss the strong ‘smellmark’ I have experienced in some other Chinatowns such as those in Seattle, US or Manchester, England, although it is likely that the smells would have strengthed as the day went on, and the cooking intensified.
Vancouver’s Chinatown © Victoria Henshaw
Toronto was very different. Super-cold (-20 without wind-chill), walking from the Metro station to my hotel upon arrival on a Sunday evening, I seriously feared the loss of some of my fingers even whilst wearing two pairs of gloves. It was dark and there were few people on the streets, the snow was piled up in mounds next to the roads and the streets were slippy, with more falling from the sky. Although I couldn’t detect a background odour, the smells as I walked down Young Street were intense. Concentrated blasts of strong odours released from the doorways and ventilation system, a new smell every few steps, warm in the otherwise biting city air.
Stepping out from Bloor Subway Station © Victoria Henshaw
A day or two later I visited Toronto’s Chinatown and found similar differences in the district’s smellscape when contrasted to the relatively subdued smellscape in Vancouver’s district. Toronto has a very large Chinese population and this was matched by the scale and diversity of Chinese services and stores situated in the area. Startlingly bright sunshine accompanied bitterly cold crisp biting air and my poor numb fingers struggled to hold the street-map (despite upping the glove layers to three at this point, combined with some serious pocket-time) and my red nose ran consistently. Perhaps a trick of the light, the red and gold flags, symbols, dragons, calligraphy and graffiti appeared brighter here, and despite the weather, many stores opened directly onto the street with doors or windows open and the smells bleeding out. Fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, books, music and other goods were sold out on the streets and the smells were enhanced by the use of outdoor heaters – in the UK the domain of outdoor cafes or smoking areas, but in Toronto’s Chinatown, a means of preventing the perishable goods from freezing!
Toronto’s Chinatown – Heating the produce © Victoria Henshaw
Such creativity in fighting the cold was also displayed back in the downtown area where warm ventilation emissions hit the icy air, forming odorous, and non-odorous steams in the street, in alleyways and released as large plumes from the skyscrapers up in the sky. And so I end my accounts of this particular Canadian adventure with the entrepreneurial actions of one guy I spotted in the city. With the air being so cold, I had wondered how those without homes could survive in the street. I saw people huddled in doorways under many, many layers of sleeping bags, blankets, cardboards and paper but in a city where the air is so desperately cold in the winter, the steam emissions released in the street from underground ventilation systems seemed a perfectly sensible choice! (see main feature image above)