Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Material, Process, Product - On Mushrooms, Part 1: Mycelium Lessons

 detail of "Unimaginable Proof" Jim Toia

Architecture has a lot to learn from the intricacies of our natural world: from scientific thermal properties to all scales of biomimicry, nature is full of lessons in form, structure, and beauty. Mushrooms, as one of the oldest life forms on the planet, have some of the deepest lessons to teach: while they are traditionally known for their nutritional and medicinal benefits, we continue to discover the mysteries kept by this ancient species. The mycelium structure of mushrooms is pound for pound stronger than concrete,[i] and engineers are beginning to explore its characteristics to create biodegradable foam packaging[ii] and eco-friendly car parts such as dashboards and bumpers.[iii] When spread over disturbed soil, mycelium can act as a binder, holding new soil in place and preventing erosion until woody plants can take hold.[iv] Additionally, Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running cites this vegetative component to fungus as having potential as a biological filter, removing chemicals and microorganisms from soil and water.[v]

"Metablossom" Jim Toia

Nature-based artist Jim Toia is fascinated with mushrooms. Toia is currently the Director of Community-based Teaching at Lafayette College, and his art is focused on mushrooms and their unique mycelium structure. Jim’s works are produced in a scientific, “spore drop” fashion, but with a far less traditional, less clinical approach: his production relies on a careful choreography and manipulation of nature in documenting spore patterns.  He acts as a maestro of sorts, conducting environmental conditions and various mushroom species by directing air currents around a carefully-positioned mushroom composition.  He also layers different species, moving the mushrooms around to activate the full potential of the canvas. Unlike the recording of brush strokes on canvas, Toia’s medium is invisible. The mushroom’s spores are microscopic and impossible to detect until they have landed in large quantity on the paper. In this way, Jim literally works blindly; he waits patiently, relying solely on his experience and knowledge of spore behavior.  The end result is both deliberate and surprising; a work of art is created through a dance between nature and the human hand. As a result, Jim’s works are a delicate balance of form, light, texture, and depth that could transcend a traditional abstract masterwork.

Jim Toia at work

[i] Stamets, Paul (Speaker) (2008). Six ways mushrooms can save the world. TED Talks. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world.html

[ii] Bayer, Eben (Speaker) (2010). Are mushrooms the new plastic? TED Talks. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/eben_bayer_are_mushrooms_the_new_plastic.html

[iii] Alsever, Jennifer (2011). Innovation Nation: Car parts made of mushrooms. CNN Money. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2011/04/01/technology/ecovative/

[iv] Stamets, Paul and David Sumerlin (2003). Mycorestoration of Abandoned Logging Roads. Fungi Perfecti. Retrieved from http://www.fungi.com/blog/items/mycorestoration-of-abandoned-logging-roads.html

[v] Stamets, Paul (2006). Mycelium Running: How mushrooms can help save the world. (1 ed.) Ten Speed Press, USA.

All photos courtesy Jim Toia and jimtoia.com


  1. Wow ! Can't imagine that mycelium structure of mushrooms is pound for pound stronger than concrete, does give a bit of a thumbs up for this fungi. Growing them is also adventurous according to http://www.mushroomsource.ca

    1. Hey, MS! We're really fascinated, too. Stay tuned for On Mushrooms: Part II, which will start to explain how this mycelia fascination (and some great collaboration with Jim Toia) has influenced a recent exploration.