Three Belgian scent specialists discuss cities’ olfactory perceptions

A few years ago, Thalys began exploring Paris, Amsterdam, Düsseldorf and Brussels through the capital cities’ signature sounds, an initial experiment entitled Sounds of the City which, today, has led to the launch of a new campaign concerned, this time around, with a city’s distinctive flavours. Think Amsterdam’s tulips, Paris’ breakfasts, the freshly cut grass of Köln’s football stadium or, closer to home, Brussels’ mouth-watering whiff of waffles which permeates throughout the city. So, in a bid to better understand the importance of olfactory sensations in shaping perceptions and whether a city’s scent can really be re-created, we partner up with the high-speed train operator and talk to three Belgian specialists about the elements at play in creating scents.

Maxime Bocxtaele, Antwerp

Compared to the suburbs or the countryside – which invariably smell of wet soil, flowers and foliage – a city’s scent will inevitably be more closely associated to metals, stones, exhaust fumes and food. And when it comes to Antwerp, the Schelde is definitely the overriding factor. Although the strength of its smell varies depending on the district, when the wind is just right, one can distinguish a slightly salty breeze from as far as the Groenplaats. What’s more, due to city’s relative lack of nature, the jasmine-like Supertunia dotted around the city also come in quite handy. There’s nothing more tragic to me than the idea of an odourless or synthetic-smelling city as there’s no doubt in my mind that a smell subconsciously reinforces our perceptions of it and give it a unique olfactory flair. For instance, if I were to attempt an olfactive reinterpretation of Antwerp, I would bring together the industrial stones, rubbers and metals with the fashion-forward and driven spirit of its people. The right combination of patchouli, incense, aldehydes, sea notes and castoreum might create a perfume reminiscent of tattoo ink, leather, smoke and metal.

Together with his mother Cathy, Maxime (1986) runs Necessities, a boutique haute perfumery store founded by his grandmother Suzanne in 1985.

Guy Delforge, Namur

When it comes to a city’s fragrance, the olfactive palette is largely determined by its proximity to nature, as well as the presence of any prominent industrial activity. I’m definitely more attuned to the countryside and natural landscapes than heavily industrialised urban centres, and luckily Namur is blessed thanks to its prime location in the heart of a valley. Growing up, my childhood was filled with the authentic natural smells of farms, and the damp earth and foliage of the woods I explored as a boy scout. Indeed, Wallonia’s capital is a comfortably populated and urban city surrounded by beautiful farmland and greenery, without the heavy pollution of metropolises. Located at the junction between the Meuse and the Sambre, its distinctive feature is without a doubt its two freshwater rivers and vegetation emitting a pleasantly crisp scent throughout the city all-year round. That being said, if I were to recreate a perfume inspired by Namur, it would be have to be something clean and fresh, perhaps suitable for both sexes – Jardin de Namur. A marine fragrance with a hint of wood notes, no questions asked.

A leading niche perfumer in Belgium with over three decades of experience, Guy Delforge (1941) runs his atelier based in the Château des Comtes in Namur’s citadel.

Peter De Cupere, Hasselt/Genk

When discussing urban scents, it’s important to take into account several factors of the city: its geographical location, its social diversity, its historical context and industries as well as its political inclinations. These all play into the specific smells found in the city; such as the cleanliness of the air, the amount of vegetation found, or even the delicious whiffs of various cuisines. Taking such a seemingly simple effect of city scents into serious consideration is definitely insightful, especially if we consider the strong hold our sense of smell holds over us. Scent can recreate memories better than any image, and can also serve as a subtle persuading power. A city can reinforce its public image and social attitudes by carefully considering, and even creating, its own scent. This is definitely feasible and has even already been done. For instance, using my concept of Drop Perfume, I created an interpretative scent of my residential city of Hasselt in 2014 together with Jan Kempeneers from the Jenever Museum. Part of my traveling container exhibition The Olfactory, we used elements of Hasselt’s heritage like jenever, juniper berries and Hasselt speculaas. And so O’Hasselt, or Eau de Hasselt was born.

Peter de Cupere (1970) is an artist working primarily in the field of sensorial – specifically, olfactive – art. He is also an active academic, and co-founder of numerous research laboratories such as Art Sense(s) Lab.