Professor and architect Jorge Otero-Pailos, AIA, and seven students from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation are uncovering the history of the Morgan Library and Museum through smell. Built in 1906 by Charles McKim of the legendary McKim, Mead & White, the New York City–based library holds financial titan John Pierpont Morgan’s private collection of books, prints, historical manuscripts, and drawings.

Morgan Library & Museum

“When people smell, they remember architecture,” Otero-Pailos says. “Architects always aim to make culturally significant buildings. One of the things that makes buildings significant is smell.”

From cigars to leather-bound books, Otero-Pailos and the students are smelling various objects under glass domes to understand the connection between collective memory and architecture—an experiment that's not exactly typical to architectural practice. The result is a cross between experimental preservation, scientific research, and architectural history.

Christine Nelson

The researchers are in the beginning stages of the experiment. First, they smell artifacts within the library under a glass dome to concentrate the smell. According to Otero-Pailos, the smell of an old book resonates greatly with people because of its chemical makeup—with organic compounds like Vanillin.

Within the glass domes, the researchers use a gel that Otero-Pailos described as “spider web-like” to trap the molecules and release distinct odors. Through the process of mass spectrometry—the measuring of masses within a sample—Otero-Pailos and his students can begin to trap the specific molecules that are emitting the scents.

“The technology is there for architects to consider smell when designing buildings,” Otero-Pailos says. In addition to the Morgan, the group of students and the professor are working with Carlos Benaim of the International Flavors and Fragrances to determine which of the thousands of molecules in an artifact emit those smells that are distinct to the Morgan Library.

Christine Nelson

While the process for uncovering the potent molecules within in the Morgan is in progress, Otero-Pailos hopes this experiment will reengage people with old items, emphasizing the importance of architectural history. “This is what makes buildings memorable,” Otero-Pailos says.