“We have different senses, but smell is the most important,” Marie-Christine Grasse declares. It certainly is in Grasse, France, where she serves as chief conservator of museums. (The shared name is mere coincidence.) The hillside city overlooking the Côte d’Azur has for centuries been to the French fragrance industry what Hollywood is to film.
Grasse reopened its one-of-a-kind International Perfume Museum last October, after a four-year, $16 million expansion that doubled its size to nearly 38,000 square feet. “We use perfume to communicate and to seduce,” Grasse says, and the design, by Frédéric Jung, a French architect, does both dramatically, merging five preexisting buildings and a medieval fortification into a singular seven-level labyrinth. It’s a surprisingly effective architectural expression of an aroma’s haunting ability to release memory.
The collection had outgrown its original 1989 home, which combined the elegant 19th-century Hugues-Aîné perfumery with a new three-story structure. To expand, the directors acquired a handful of adjacent buildings and courtyards, most notably the 18th-century Hôtel Pontevès Morel-Amic, a mansion that served as a judicial court after the French Revolution.
But additional square footage was only part of the story. “The museum wanted a new vision,” Jung says. When researching the site, he realized that the monumental wall separating the museum from the Pontevès was actually the original 14th-century fortification that had protected Grasse’s historic center. Jung decided to expose the enormous stone rampart by removing the part of the museum that abutted it to a depth of 11.5 feet (as though cutting a slice from a cake) and, at eight points over three levels, piercing through the wall into the mansion. Then, in the newly opened space along the wall, Jung created a glass-roofed atrium, into which he inserted a steel stair that permits free passage between the museum and the mansion. Since the Pontevès building sits slightly above the museum on the sloped site, visitors enter this “grand transparent nave” (as the press release describes it) from the top, via the mansion’s courtyard, where they pass through a greenhouse and terrace before descending into the galleries.
The design, Grasse says, does more than organize space. “Because you go between the old and new cities, the 18th-century house and the new museum, you are always in two times,” she says. Like a whiff of perfume that pulls us into the past, Jung’s museum produces a real-time experience in which history is ever-present.
The architect reinforced this duality with his exhibition designs. In the Pontevès galleries, older objects sit in gray cabinets, while modern items with historical connections are featured in white vitrines. The only hitch is that with some 50,000 available artifacts, a dispute has arisen over how much to display. “The curators want to show everything, and we think you don’t need a hundred things to express one idea,” the architect says. It’s a fitting struggle for a nation in which the word for “smelling” and “feeling”—sentir—is the same.