Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How Houses Smell

     I don’t mean any consecrated odor, steam from the washing or even the stink of the kids’ diapers. I live in a young neighborhood which is growing with the ringing of hammers, the clatter of scaffolding and the strokes of the carpenter’s axes, and if you bound my eyes and led me through the city I would know my way by smells: there is an old street, those are new buildings, still partly uninhabited, there is an unsold house, while the foundation on that house is caving in. For the building smells of the man, gives our the odor of the matter from which it has arisen, and it takes decades before odors settle, and the dry, dusty stink of accidents hang in the air.

     At first it reeks of barren earth; the cold, damp, sepulchral breath of the bedrock below wafts up from the dug foundations. But there are already piles of bricks set up around, and well-baked bricks have an odor almost like that of bread; the dry oven sighs out of them, and the hot, mealy dust drifts off of them. Then the slaked lime blows in, which stings the eyes and sticks in the throat, and there is also the cold, raw smell of the mortar, which hangs coarse and close. The smell of new construction is cold and raw like the air in a cave, and campfires and good lamps will be needed to make this into a dwelling.

     Then the boards go up and the scaffolding rises, to let the wall-builders up and to change the smell, for the odor of wood is solid and good; wood smells of home, of ripeness, and its pitchy, sunny exhalations cover the lime reek of the plaster and the muddy smell of concrete. And let us not forget the sourish stench of iron, girders, pipes, and wires, together with the oily fetor of lacquer; or even the smoky reek of charcoal smoke used to cure the walls. And here we have the rank and file of carpenters and joiners as they raise the timbers, lay the floors and install the windows and doors; wood prevails and its resinous, balsamic odor drifts out of the clangorous construction. To that are added the smells of turpentine, varnish and oils, the stink of coats of wallpaper pastes and paint. And finally the well-scrubbed building sighs lightly and smells of soap like a boy fresh out of the bath on Sunday; the cool emptiness and strange hollowness of new construction exhales out the open windows.

     And a new building does not lose its own odor right away; just as new clothes smell of the textile factory and new shoes of the tannery, the house smells for a long while of the building site. Sir, it is a lng time before people feel at home in it; the building yet hems them in like some temporary enclosure, not yet grown around them like the shell on a small, it comes out strongly here and overpowers over there like new clothes. It must be extinguished somewhat to render it fit for people; you could say it must ripen for a few years. It only becomes a full, real house when it stops being a new building; then it becomes not just the work of the builders, but also of the people who live in it. From the laundry in the cellar to the smoking chimney it sings of humanity and warmth, until one day when men come with picks and shovels, and it smells, for one last time, of the grist mill, the meal, ripeness and its own special desiccation, reminiscent of the scent of hay and rotting wood.



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