J-Term 2022: Scent and the City

Khulood Alawadi is teaching a J-term course that takes students on a olfactory journey through time and technology.

From the ancient practice of burning incense to the creation of a digital fragrance encoded in an NFT, NYU Abu Dhabi students are researching a wide range of topics, from history to finance, through the sense of smell. 

In Scent and the City, Lecturer Khulood Alawadi is asking students to challenge their understanding of how humans perceive the world through one of their five prime senses. 

The course explores scent as an element of design, urbanism, and placemaking. Students will study the history of smell in human society, and the role of design and technology in creating, containing, and diffusing scents. 

“There are many immersive and sensorial experiences in this course, with a special focus on olfaction and seeing our world through olfactive lenses. Students practiced identifying and accurately describing individual natural and synthetic ingredients used in perfumery,” said Alawadi.  

The course also speculates on the future and the present of scents. Students were asked to research the scent landscape of the UAE and map their experiences through walking tours focused on identifying aromas, or as Alawadi put it “smellwalks.”

During these smell walks, students were asked to do walking tours of Abu Dhabi and use learnt methodologies from the course to identify curious and ephemeral smells that characterize different parts of the UAE’s capital. The scentmaps were collated by all the students in a final exhibition that provides a olfactory landscape of Abu Dhabi.

“I am hoping that the students will leave the course with a heightened awareness of the smells around them and a belief in the value of olfaction as a way of exploring and acquiring knowledge about the world and a sensorially inclusive approach to design and design thinking.”

Alawadi said that traditional methods of learning have devalued experiential learning and regarded it as rudimentary or sought to remove sensorial experiences, especially olfaction from epistemology. She says that while visual and auditory education couldn't be removed, olfaction wasn't valued and was not considered a system of knowledge collection.

“However, contrary to common belief, humans have excellent olfactory abilities, we can detect and discriminate an extraordinary range of odors. Scent shapes people's experiences of the world around them and therefore deserves greater academic investigation. An interdisciplinary and experiential approach is crucial to grasp its totality. This means getting students out there in the world, seeing things through scented lenses, rereading, and ultimately redesigning our world nose-first,” she said.