Within the five senses of human being, smell is certainly the one that has the most fundamental importance in the exercise of memory. Touch is almost harmless, while hearing and sight are weak compared to the passage of time. Past images fade to grey in our minds, and words twist and take on new meanings. Taste is closely connected to smell, and the latter easily governs the resurfacing of lost memories. A particular smell can remind us of past experiences, journeys we have experienced, places we have known and people who have marked our existence.

At the beginning of life, the newborn recognizes the mother, the nourishment, through smell, just as many animals recognize their youngling through their smell. On the other hand, quoting the writer and filmmaker Marcel Hanoun: “of all the senses, smell is the one that strikes me the most. How do our nerves become nuances, subtle and sublime interpreters of what cannot be seen, what cannot be understood, what cannot be written with words? The smell is like a soul, immaterial”.

We are linked to the smells of the world, and the unpleasant ones are numerous, as the natural ones can often be sweet and fragrant. It’s a big step from the natural to the artificial, but man has worked hard over the centuries to produce, starting from natural elements, substances with a delicate aroma, which recall the material from which they are extracted, but enhance and perfect it, and in this regard, Jean Giono wrote: “the Gods create smells, men manufacture perfumes“.

Perfume was born as a contrast to worldly smells, as proof that humanity can also produce nebulized beauty, essences that cover the work of nature on our bodies. There were many places where the art of creating perfumes was refined, but one city in particular, in the history of the world, still today after three centuries, can boast the title of World Perfume Capital. The city of Grasse, in the hinterland of the French Riviera, among fragrant pine forests and reddish rocks, is pursuing a work of raising awareness towards the art of perfumery, thanks to the success that its productions have had throughout the globe over time.

Three families originally began to study how to produce the essences that then overwhelmed the market: Gallimard, Molinard and above all Fragonard. The latter name is now borne by the International Museum of Perfumery (MIP), located in the town of Grasse. Here the history, origins and fortune of this fragrant world are explained.

But the fortune of the first and current producers extends through fragrant fields and colorful crops: the flower fields of Grasse, which have now practically disappeared. Precisely for this reason the MIP, in collaboration with the municipality of Mouans-Sartoux and the Communauté d’agglomération Pôle Azur Provence, created “La Bastide du Parfumeur” in 2007, a sort of cooperative aimed at raising awareness among the general public towards the cultivation of perfume plants; this was the incubator that allowed the MIP Garden to be opened in 2010, a place that is well defined as the conservatory of perfume plants of the International Perfumery Museum: a natural space witness to the olfactory landscape linked to local agriculture.

It is a place open to the public, where people of all ages can approach the world of the production of aromatic plants, fruits rich in essential oils and fragrant flowers. A place that stands out from the usual landscape of Provence, where over an area of ​​almost three hectares, we find orderly plantations of colorful aromatic herbs, dotted with rose gardens and lavender that attract myriads of industrious bees. There are two paths that we can take: the first, to the east, will lead us to discover an olfactory journey in the actual “perfume gardens”, where we will discover the richness and variety of the essences used to compose the best-known fragrances and those which we least expect to find in a bottle of Eau de Parfum.

Here we are therefore faced with numerous varieties of sage and lavender (including Salvia sclarea L. and Lavandula x intermedia), rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), currant (Ribes nigrum L.) and lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora), but also to the less familiar vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides), rockrose (Cistus ladanifer), rush broom (Spartium junceum), French marigold (Tagetes patula) and Provence rose (Rosa x centifolia). The route to the west will instead lead us to spaces where traditional species from the territories of Grasse and its surroundings are cultivated, and where the tradition of fields that are deteriorating outside the garden walls is preserved, thus acting as a conservatory of these now rare landscapes.

But the MIP garden is not just history of perfume and its raw materials; instead, it establishes itself as a real place to discover nature and deepen its knowledge. In fact, every year parts are added to the garden, forgotten corners are restored, new paths are proposed that lead to ever-changing discoveries. We come across shady places where we can relax while enjoying the view of a canal that carries water in the garden through pools rich in aquatic species, basins similar to old wash houses, reconstructed fountains that break up the monotony of a path; several “insect hotels”, where the local six-legged fauna can rest and find refuge between one flower and another, especially in the colder seasons; educational greenhouses where courses and seminars are organized to introduce to organic gardening and plant care.

In addition to this, art exhibitions are organized which offer the visitor a total immersion between nature and culture, ranging from environmental art interventions to daring demonstrations of what the contemporary can generate.

Immersed in the greenery and hoping for a beautiful sunny day, we undertake the path that leads us to the top of the garden located on a slight slope: we stop to smell plants that bring to mind distant memories, observing their variegated shades; we glimpse the flight of some poppies, which slowly creep into the cracks of a dry stone wall, and dye the white rough stones a bright orange like a flame. When we reach a small clearing where venerable cypresses dominate this kingdom of the effluvium, the glance makes it worth the effort to get there: an extension of sinuous lines orders the plots, almost to create a texture, which, like a blanket, covers the harsh and rusty land of that rediscovered corner of Provence. We let our mind wander, possibly in front of a summer sunset, and inhale deeply. There, beyond the sunset, the future. Here, in the moment, an eternity of memories.

Project details

Design: François Navarro
Project Location: Mouans-Sartoux, France
Typology: Educational garden
Design year: 2005
Built: 2006-2007
Architecture: Gilles Sensini, José Moralès
Photo & video credits: © Gaël Glaudel

François Navarro

François Navarro

Their conceptual work is placed in a minimalist logic based on the creation of strong contrasts between vegetation and architecture, water and mineral, on different scales. This spatial construction is the only one effective, in their eyes, of creating places capable of questioning the fellow citizens about the world around, of making them freer in the face of the usual conceptual formatting.