Scents and the City By Polly Watkins

Polly’s scentwalk follows Melbourne’s Arcades and Lanes walking map. Her piece is inspired by The Role of Place in Civic Innovation and Machines That Read Your Mind.

Autumn. Light breezes. Flinders Street Station under the clocks.

Silhouettes of people flow to and fro. No point just sniffing. Smelling is a whole body experience. I focus my nose and inhale deeply. A whiff of musky perfume as a woman brushes by. Freshly exhaled tobacco turns my nose toward a young man waiting for someone. Buttery popcorn. Another hit of perfume, this time fruity. Sweet. I stalk the base notes. Inhaling the sweaty rub of a century of comings and goings, I wonder if upgraded humans will preserve this place to gather and scoff at the animal redundancies of earlier iterations of self, or come here to fulfill a deep yearning to remember?

Degraves Street. Lunchtime.

The concentrated waft from a cigarette receptacle gives way to freshly ground coffee. A fusion of cooking smells envelopes me. Bacon frying sends receptors into a frenzy. Spiced soup steams chilli. Tumeric. Cummin. Aromatic high notes – intense, volatile and short lived. Something peppery. Lemongrass. Fried onion. Angling through crammed tables, I pass friends. Lovers. Families. Strangers. Scented bodies mingle with sly body scents percolating under arms; intimate smellnotes leaf about in the whirl of delicious food smells.

Chemist Xavier Duran describes smell as a ‘symphony of molecules’[1] Since smells don’t exist independently from our perception, it makes sense that there are no good or bad smells. I consciously try to peel away smell prejudice. My nose can’t retrieve layered putrescent odours from 1850’s rubbish and ‘night-soil’ (probably a relief), but I can detect fresh pee lurking in corners; the sticky spill of late night Vodka Cruiser. Raspberry.

The doors of Centre Way slide open. I enter a distinctly different scent sphere. Fragrant. Sweet. Brooding. I stick my nose into the first shop. Smokey-birch-tar shoe polish; traces of drycleaning fluid sealed in seams of pre-loved clothes. At a soap display, an older woman sniffs cinnamon soap. Her warm body scent blows in my direction. It’s oddly comforting. Smelling the warmth of another person is so intimate it reminds me of the wet nurse in Süskind’s Perfume, who can find her babies with her nose. She knows their smell precisely: Feet smell  ‘like fresh butter’, bodies like ‘a pancake that’s been soaked in milk. And their heads… where the hair makes a cowlick… smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful…’[2]

Over evolutionary time our sense of smell has been downgraded in favour of sight and hearing, yet our noses are capable of detecting up to a trillion smells;[3] they are huge data machines. We just need to remember how to smell.

Cross Collins Street. Enter Block Arcade. Citron-scented air permeates. Licorice and, curiously, eucalyptus dominate a confectionary shop in Royal Arcade. Further along, blended incense forms a lingering cloud. Rose. Sandalwood. Patchouli. Myrrh. Velvety caramel sugar saturates a chocolate shop. It triggers my craving. At Bourke Street Mall I can’t resist gulping in the powdery scent sphere at the Myer entrance, evoking childhood shopping expeditions when such places held allure. Smell and memory are closely related and savvy scent marketers exploit this connection shamelessly to make us linger and consume.

Turn at the G.P.O. into Elizabeth Street. Grittier smells exude from exhausted workers sucking on smokes and take-away coffees. Their pleasure evokes Wim Wender’s haunting film, Wings of Desire. Guardian angel Damiel listens as Falk describes the joy of human sensory pleasures: ‘Just to touch something… to smoke, have coffee…and if you do it together it’s fantastic.’[4] Sharp whiff of petrol. A middle-aged man revs his hotted-up V8 Commodore. Before the lights change, my nose’s membrane tanks with the drip of fresh-cut pineapple from a juice bar.

Late afternoon. Niagara Lane. Earthy-damp seals bluestone pavers.  Above, scented geraniums crane from a windowsill. I wonder if the resident smells rose geranium or chocolate? Head down Hardware Lane. Expected traffic fumes drift with air-laden food smells spilling from kitchen vents. Seared seafood. Lemon juice sprays the air. A canopy of trees net sweet odours from syrupy crepes. I lean to smell a fluffy pooch. The owner laughs. Wine-laced, fresh-salted breath. Each smellnote adds another layer to this multisensory urbanscape winding through Melbourne’s CBD. City-planners need to snub monochrome smell strips and embrace the whole scent spectrum to design beyond 20th Century notions of sanitation and eradication of ‘bad’ smells.

Little Collins Street. Dusk etches street life with cinematic hues. Curled-lipped teens swagger in sartorial splendor, smoking like chimneys. Accelerated metabolics sublimate tobacco and edgy-metallic body scents. Will future techno teens upgrade to achieve ‘hair-sweat-teeth purity’[5] to rid themselves of sultry odours from sex hormones, doubt and confusion; or will they cultivate smell to disrupt the system?

Strolling through Howey Place I find Brazil in a bottle, squirted inside a Rio-inspired boutique. There’s a blast of Indian curry. My nose interacts with youngsters camped among belongings sharing hot food. Bonds of camaraderie smell warm and safe. I wonder how they smell me. Oatmeal shampoo mixed with body scent from my blouse twice worn? I wonder too if they can smell my sadness that in a few days it will be my Dad’s birthday, marking ten months since his death.

Collins Street shops shut-eyes. Night falls fast. Fresh paint speckles the overalls of a tradie. He stands in the street texting home. Finished for the day.

It’s curious that our brain’s smell-processing centre, in the olfactory bulb, resides in a very primitive part – the ‘reptilian brain’ – linking us to species that took a different evolutionary path. Imagine the possibilities if mind-computer interfaces allow us to tap into our reptilian brain, to cultivate this ancient smell knowledge, described by Ernesto Ventos as ‘the oldest component of our historical memory, the sense of our earliest perceptions, solidly rooted in our origins as a species and a culture’?[6] Will we literally smell – and understand – our neighbours, their homes, cultures, dreams, fears and courage? Will we embrace the otherness of animals as worthy of communion?

Last leg along Swanston Street. Nightlife cranks up. Tethered horses stretch the block toward Young and Jackson. Pungent, hot-blooded odours would remind my mother of frosty mornings running over paddocks, the scent of fresh manure steaming in grass. For me, the smell evokes grief for wildness lost. Soft rain sweeps bitumen. Finally, as night settles, I am back where I started, under the clocks.

Written by Polly Watkins

[1] Xavier Duran, Smell, A Symphony of Molecules in Smell Colour: Chemistry, Art and Pedagogy (ACTAR/Arts Santa Monica, 2011), 13.

[2] Patrick Süskind, Perfume (Penguin Books, 1987), 12-13.

[3] Bushdid et al research cited in Daniele Quercia et al, Smelly Maps: The Digital Life of Urban Smellscapes (, 2.

[4] Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire (Road Movies Film Produktion, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 1987)

[5] Reference to Philip. K. Dick’s The Chromium Fence (Imagination Magazine, 1955)

[6] Ernesto Ventos, The World of Smell in Smell Colour : Chemistry, Art and Pedagogy (ACTAR/Arts Santa Monica, 2011), 18.


We’ve teamed up with RMIT’s School and Media and Communication and asked students to respond to the themes of Melbourne Knowledge Week and reflect Melbourne’s future. This response by Polly Watkins explores the experience of scent in Melbourne. 

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