Until last year, when the progressive and psychedelic band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard published the new record Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava with the opening song called “Mycelium”,I must admit that I had never heard of that word, and the only thing I knew was that it was related to mushrooms. Little did I know that the following year mycelium was at the centre of “In Vivo”, the Belgian Pavilion curated by philosopher Vinciane Despret and Brussels based architecture studio Bento at the 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture, in perfect harmony with the theme Laboratory of the Future chosen by the curator Leslie Lokko, who stated:
“More than buildings, forms, materials or structures, it is architecture’s ability to alter how we see the world that is its most precious powerful gift”.
But what is this mycelium and how architecture come into play?
A mycelium (the vegetative part of mushrooms) is a network of fungal threads or hyphae. Mycelia often grow underground but can also thrive in other places such as rotting tree trunks. A single spore can develop into a mycelium.
In the opening chapter of his book “What a Mushroom Lives For” in 2022 the American anthropologist Michael Hathaway wrote: Fungi (or mycelia) are world-makers: powerful subjects that shape our planet in a largely unrecognized ways, and in her foreword his colleague Anna Tsing added that the question Do mushrooms make the world? might sound as a science fiction proposition but we can say with a certain degree of certainty that the Belgian Pavilion intention is that of transforming science-fiction into the reality of architectural future and then of our lives.
At the core of the curators’ choice of focusing the entire pavilion on mycelium is the critic on the current way of doing architecture (at least in Western countries) which is based on the indiscriminate exploitation of natural and human resources. In In Vivo they question our system of extractivist production by identifying and developing construction alternatives using materials derived from living organisms and the imagery that accompanies them.
Indeed, the conceptual structure of the pavilion has been conceived as a place for experimentation and for allowing ourselves to imagine a different future where we recognize natural resources as our allies and not as inert matter to use and dispose. It’s an invitation to an historical paradigm shift, from the Kaputalist era (from the German kaputt: broken) that led us to the climate crisis we live in, to an holobiotique era when humans finally recognize they are not at the top of the environmental hierarchy, that a hierarchy doesn’t need to exist and “that our world is a real palimpsest, which preserves the traces of everything that lived before us, so too are our bodies and psyches”, to use the words of philosopher Émilie Hache to feel “this great cosmic breath” that eliminates “the very idea of any boundary between interior and exterior, between body and its environment and between what populates us and what surrounds us”.
You can have a concrete glimpse of this in the central room, featuring a stunning wooden structure with panels of mycelium, installed on a floor made of raw earth from excavated soil. This installation showcases the curators’ use of natural, living materials. This provides an opportunity for visitors to experience the sensory, tactile, acoustic, and poetic characteristics of these materials. All the materials stem from the urban area of Brussels.
The other rooms are structured around the notions of generation, regeneration and territorialization. In the generation room you will find mycelium bricks. Unlike concrete, which is a fixed fluid that is poured into a mould and passively assumes its shape, mycelium is inoculated in small elements. From there, it starts to weave an increasingly dense network within the limits of the container, which will determine its shape. Currently, at the end of the process, the mycelium can be killed by a thermal shock of 70° C or left to hibernate.
The Regeneration room shows the so called “fungal leather”, which is grown in a controlled environment from mycelium, as a leaf on the surface of a solid or liquid substrate containing nutrients. It then forms a dense and intertwined network of threadlike structures (hyphae) which can bind together into a material that will be used as a sustainable alternative to animal leather.
Finally, in the territorialization room, the mycelium living character is visible thanks to a smaller scale incubator.
The exhibition continues with its catalogue Living in Mycelium, not the usual we are used to find at the end of exhibitions, it is rather a work per se that expands the themes addressed in In Vivo. It is a hybrid book in between fiction and non-fiction, that experiments with different type of texts (anthropology diary, scientific journals etc.). It gives great insights on the topics of the pavilion using the narrative tool to let the visitor and then the reader dive into a brand-new possible world.