In 2013 I spoke with Mexican-born, New York-based architect, conservator and perfumer Carlos Huber as he released Arquiste, a line of fragrances that re-create several key moments in European and South American history.
Visiting Ibiza in his early twenties, Mexican-born Carlos Huber was struck by the glorious perfumes that emanate from the hillside walks the island offers. A million miles from the clichéd Ibiza of nightclubbing is the ancient island flora thick with pine trees, rosemary, and lavender. What Huber had walked into was just a few of the rich scents that have characterised the Mediterranean landscape for centuries, such as wild herbs, citrus, pine, myrtle and dates. These are scents that have meaning beyond their own aesthetic beauty, triggering memories and deep associations. These scents – indeed all scents – can be, effectively, doors into other worlds, of time, place and memory.
Ibiza he found to be an “incredibly fragrant” island, with the distinct advantage that the tourist nightclub trade is so concentrated into a small area that the rest of this marvellous, rustic, fragrant and history-drenched island is comparatively free for the enjoyment of hikers such as himself and his friends. The strong fragrances of the island had set him thinking, and wondering.
As he moved on through his career, blending skills from the disciplines of art, architecture, design and historic conservation, Huber deepened his curiosity for the past. He was fascinated by the idea of not just exploring signature moments in colonial and European history for their social, cultural, architectural or artistic significance, but of seeking to re-create the fragrances of those moments: the scents that blended with the people, that wafted through the buildings, that accompanied lovers, cooks, judges and poets, princes, dandies, sailors, explorers, peasants and aristocrats.
Another fragrance that has marked him deeply is the orange blossom. For Huber the orange blossom is redolent of his native Mexico; so too are limes, both citrus fruits that have great cultural and symbolic meaning.
“I was struck,” he commented when speaking from his New York office, “by the idea of the orange coming from the Middle East, arriving in Spain via the Moors, and then on to the Americas, finding the place it really thrives in the Gulf of Mexico. The orange tree comes to represent that cultural hybridisation. It represents the roots of Spanish culture in Mexico and yet, paradoxically, it is not even a Spanish tree.”
The orange blossom also serves as the simple, pure base for the cologne that Spanish and Mexican mothers still use to splash onto their children. “When I was a child, after the bath or shower my mother would always splash me with the orange blossom cologne, and even today, every time I visit Mexico (Huber now lives in New York) I bring some back for myself and friends. Every morning I still splash it on my face, or in the evening. It’s not about masking anything – it’s just the comfort in that smell. When you live outside your country of origin there are things that you miss, and you hold onto these little things that have that deep emotional association.”
This idea of the intangible stayed with Huber as he developed his work in the fields of luxury retail, interior design and then involvement with architecture, historic preservation and art installation, seeking to understand the role of non-visual clues in the interpretation of historic sites. History can be a double-edged sword, full of rich reward and unpleasant discovery.
Many of us are accustomed to the idea that in the past, all smells were overbearingly bad: we think of unwashed wigs, unbathed bodies and chamber pots emptied into city streets, of unrefrigerated food and untreated body wounds. This, Huber suggested, is only part of the story, and ignores the fact that traditions of bodily cleanliness are millennia old – the bathhouses by which many Europeans kept themselves clean (and which are still so much a part of Japanese society, for example) were only discouraged later by the institution of the church who saw such fleshly sites as encouraging all manner of sins. He insists Marie Antoinette was scrupulously clean. The idea of a stench-filled past can be exaggerated; it plays easily into our ideas of continual hygienic progress. However, the case may sometimes be, Huber suggests, that no-one was quite so modern as the ancients.
For Huber, olfactory memories operate as strongly as music or the emotions of the heart in the way aromas evoke places, times, and physical space. He is fascinated by the connection between architecture, space and smell, or as he puts it, “the symbiotic relationship between scent, space and time. Smells can sometimes tell you more about a space than your eyes. For example, when you experience going into a church, or a forest clearing, or an old house, or indeed a new house, or new car – the way you experience the feeling of these spaces is not only the physical aspect, but the characteristic smell of the elements.
“Architecture is not only about the walls. It is about the light, the ventilation and how you experience the space, and the smell is a strong part of that too. My interest and research in historic buildings and sites led me to think about not only the structural requirements necessary in order to preserve a site, but also how these places might have smelt in key historical moments?”
Huber also studied perfumery, and began to draw all the different strands of his experience together. The result is the new label Arquiste, recently launched in Australia, which sees a line of seven fragrances all reflecting elements of his diverse interests – among them history, colonial inheritance, hybridisation, childhood, innocence and beauty. The idea explored here is that the architecture and shape of any given historical moment carries within it not just personal, political or artistic significance, but also its own scent. Huber has worked with master perfumers Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier.
We start with L’Etrog, placing us in 12th century Calabria, immersing us in citron, myrtle and date. Then Flor y Canto transports us to Tenochtitlan, Mexico, 1400, on the festive day flowers are offered on the Aztec altars, a fragrance strongly defined by tuberose and magnolia from the local gardens created when the city (now Mexico City) was built. Next come a companion pair: Fleur de Luis and Infanta en Flor both situate us in the Basque Country, 1660, on the Isle of Pheasants in the middle of the Bidasoa River at Hendaye, marking the French-Spanish border; here Louis XIV awaits his new bride, the Infanta Maria Teresa, an occasion steeped in orange water scents and jasmine with hints of rose.
The collection continues with the startlingly original Anima Dulcis; we are once again in Mexico City, 1695, now under Spanish rule. Cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon and a dash of chilli suggest a baroque brew concocted by nuns at the Royal Convent of Jesus Maria, and reflects elements of an old recipe Huber came across in his research. With heart notes including clove and cumin the fragrance is, quite simply, unlike anything you might be accustomed to. Aleksandr takes us to St. Petersburg, 1837 – the world, both dashing and tragic, of Pushkin and his equally remarkable compatriot Lermontov. Neroli, violet leaf and fir, iced vodka and leather all combine for another remarkable fragrance. Finally, Boutonnière No 7 drops us into the foyer of the Opéra-Comique in 1899 Paris, where Huber creates a gardenia perfume for men, blended with lavender, bergamot and mandarin. The suggestion is of a green and heady scent that attracts beautiful young women to equally elegant men.
This last is a fragrance of which Huber is rightly proud and which has been gathering awards much as one might gather the flowers of Grasse.