In 2014, the courtyard of MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s campus in Queens, NY, was host to a brick structure that looked like several vertical cylinders merging together and re-dividing at the top. It was unit masonry construction, and the bricks were made of mushrooms. Mycelia. Fungus.
The project Hy-Fi was created by David Benjamin and his firm The Living, and was the winner of the 15th annual Young Architects Program. It was installed from June through September, 2014.
The bricks are, technically, a composite material. They are not a fiber-reinforced polymer composite (so they’re a little outside our usual orbit) but they are worth thinking about.
The bricks are grown. A a female mold (“mold” here meaning a casting form, not a fungus) made of a special reflective plastic invented by 3M is partially-filled with chopped-up corn stalks, hemp, and mycelium. In about 5 days, the mycelium completely fills the mold, binding together the corn stalks and hemp (the bio-based reinforcement) into a brick shape. The molds were later re-used as the top-most brick layers of the tower, capping off the structure with a shimmering cornice. This brick-making process was created by a company called Ecovative, a partner on the project.
No energy is added during growing process. There are virtually no carbon emissions, either. The structure was expected to last about three months – perfect for the modern architectural competition temporary pavilion – before it begins to decompose. At the end of that time, it’s completely compostable.
The designer, David Benjamin, says that it would not be difficult to tweak the formula to make more permanent bricks.
The tower made with these bricks is designed to provide shade and a cool place to sit during the summer. The chimney-shape of the cylinders is not a coincidence: the tower is engineered to draw air up through the top to cool those sitting within its walls.
The other significant design intent of the structure was to provoke thought. It succeeds at that, even two years after is has returned to compost. The concept of bio-composites is a slowly gathering force. We have reported previously on building-cladding and an electric scooter made with natural fiber reinforcement and bio-resins sourced from soy. The mycelium-based process of fast-growing composites adds a new dimension to the concept. It has some obvious uses for emergency shelter (it might not have to be bricks, either) and other types of temporary construction. But it also has implications about the long-term, about growing building materials in their final form rather than the grow-cut-shape cycle that defines wood construction.
Images via inhabitat.com and dezeen.com, as noted: