At the onset of the ‘Untitled Dubai Topos Project’ I ventured to say that the project was a meditation on various idiosyncratic yet spectral features of public spaces in Dubai. As temperatures went soaring this summer, much of my research was consigned to the great indoor environments of Dubai where I investigated the use of botanical features and ambient music in shopping malls. In this fifth and closing entry, I look closely at the third and final feature of my project, scent.
Much like the indoor preserved palm trees and the bespoke ambient chill out lounge playlists I discussed in previous posts, my interest in the scenting of public spaces is largely the ubiquitous nature of the practice itself. Dubai hosts a number of scent marketing firms that provide fragrance solutions to its many shopping malls, restaurants and hotels, in the shape of either scent matches i.e. a fragrance is selected from an extensive catalog of existing perfumes, or via the construction of a wholly new signature scent. Were it not for a confidentiality clause between marketers and clients, one could quite plausibly create a comprehensive scent map, detailing all the different notes, one would encounter in a typical day spent at Dubai Mall, for whose many stores scent marketing is as essential as music and lighting.
Typically, a scent-marketing firm will receive a written project brief covering the identity and concept of the store, its intended customer base and the overall ambience it hopes to create. For this they will return either a bespoke signature fragrance or an approximate match, with the ultimate aim of keeping an ongoing olfaction (typically subconscious) relationship with customers, who find themselves returning to certain stores because they smell nicer. The Dubai-based scent marketers I conducted research on currently keep a catalog of approximately 1,600 different fragrances featuring an almost incalculable number of notes; ‘Pink Grapefruit’ is Dubai’s preferred fragrance from the catalog of generic scents. From personal experience I can recall that Zara stores always smelt good to me and that the ones in Dubai smelt either exactly the same or very similar to the store’s outlets in London and Hong Kong. A closer look revealed that this was Zara’s signature fragrance with notes of ‘Black Vanilla’ and ‘White Jasmine’ and which were also available to buy through the store.
For diffusion, most stores here use industrial strength aroma diffusers either inside air conditioners, on tracks alongside lighting or discreetly mounted on walls behind displays. The science of the olfactory bulb is far too rich and dense to detail here but for anyone interested in the maddeningly obsessive world of perfumes and olfactory science, Chandler Burr’s ‘The Emperor of Scent’ is a foundational read.
As I spent more and more time looking at the background of scent marketing, I found myself delving deeper and deeper into famed fragrance-based branding campaigns that have over time become part of perfume lore. The most celebrated scent branding story belongs to Park Hyatt, that has created for its Paris hotel a bespoke Patchouli- based perfume (crafted by French perfumer BlaiseMautin), a fragrance which has a bit of a dedicated cult following on the internet, including perfume fanatics who will fly half way across the world to buy Park Hyatt hotel toiletries and room fragrances available to purchase onsite via the hotel concierge. Although this part of my project featured a slight detour away from shopping malls, hotel lobbies I felt, provide just as intrinsic an experience into Dubai’s urban landscape as other public spaces. Park Hyatt Dubai too, has a signature Patchouli-based fragrance titled ‘Patchouli Oriental’ with notes of vanilla, rose, orange, sandalwood, musk, wood, leather and bergamot among others I couldn’t identify. And after almost a month of emails and phone calls, I tracked down the information I was looking for, that the fragrance was available to buy (under another name) as a proprietary blend in a fragrance store in Dubai! ‘Patchouli Oriental’ smells to me like Dubai if I was rich.
Apart from this more intentional and structured scent architecture there is also the question of perfume stores, specifically kiosks, sampling stations or simply the flurry of arms outstretched to spray the latest new scent on obliging passersby. In this area, the smell of ‘Oud’ encompasses a kind of territorializing fragrance that embodies the essence of ‘the state’ and with whom I have an almost filial bond. It is the scent that moves and in doing so reminds you that in spite of its nonplaceness you are in a city which is in the Middle East. Along, with the preserved palm trees and the Adha’an, the ‘Oud’ fragrance or aura rather provides for my project the cultural specificity that distinguishes it from an architectural critique of Los Angeles.
As a succinct closing remark, it would be good to state that the although much of the research here was dedicated to the nature of retail space, it is a spatial practice which is as close to public space one can truly reach in Dubai. Halfway through the project I became quite interested in questions of veneers and authenticity, images encountering images and falsity which came nicely into dialogue with my initial intentions of exploring the phantasmagoric side of Dubai’s constructed landscape. As a conclusion I will be presenting readymade plant pieces, scent sculptures and sound works, which are outcomes of collaborations with Dubai institutions. Somewhere between the ambient jazz punctuated by the Adha’an, the Oud, the ‘Patchouli Oriental,’ the preserved palm tree leaves and the ‘real-touch’ orchids, is the city I encounter everyday.