Form Follows Fungus

Having shown the antiquity of fungitecture in our Uni articles on Greek architecture, we skip forward to modern times and a contentious alliteration much quoted by architects and others involved with design, namely:

“Form Follows Function”

The coining of this phrase is usually attributed to the American architect Louis Henri Sullivan, who declared in an essay The tall office building considered artistically:

"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. That is the law." (Lippincott's magazine, March 1896)

Although Sullivan initially penned "form ever follows function", the expression was soon recast as "form follows function" in subsequent correspondence by him and others. Following his funeral in 1924, Sullivan's one-time assistant but by then a famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, arranged to have the words "Form Follows Function" immortalised upon his tombstone:

1856 Louis Henri Sullivan 1924
By his buildings great in influence and power,  his drawings unsurpassed in originality,  his writings rich in poetry and prophecy,  his teachings persuasive and eloquent,  his philosophy wherein "Form Follows Function" he summed up all truth in art,  Sullivan has earned his place as one of the greatest architectural forces in America.  In Testimony of this,  his professional and other friends have built this monument.

However, Sullivan was not the first to assert a relationship between form and function in architecture. Half a century earlier, the American neo-classicist sculptor Horatio Greenough (1805-1852) had implored American architects to desist from the antiquated styles of "mouldering Europe" (Greek euros/evros = "mould, fungus") and instead seek to develop new architectural styles by adopting a functional design philosophy similar to that applied to ships and other machines. (American Architecture, August 1853)

Had Greenough lived to see the end of 1853, he might have revised his essay to accommodate the invention of the hypodermic syringe (Greek suriggos = "pipe"). Outwardly composed of a hollow pointed steel needle affixed to the end of a graduated glass cylinder, the shape of a hypodermic syringe readily compares to a tall slender high-rise, all clad in glass and surmounted by a steel communications tower, that pumps people as well as fluids. As an early proponent of the skyscraper in the age of the syringe, Sullivan too could have made this association.

There were others before Greenough, but one notable exception is the Roman plumber-mechanic (cum fungineer) Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who nowhere applies the Latin forms of the word "function" in his classic treatise on ancient Greek and Roman architectures.

Empire State Building
Empire State Building, New York.
Hypodermic Syringe.

Function Follows Fungi

Now our word "function" comes as a borrowing of Latin functio, fungor and fungi, all of which stem from the Latin verb fung and possesses a meaning of "performing, discharging or executing a duty". In turn, Latin fung is thought to derive from Indo-European bheug, where the term "Indo-European" refers to a theoretical ancestor of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and many other languages of this region. But while Indo-European bheug remains unattested in any ancient literature, another of its deemed derivatives, Sanskrit bhukta, has the basic meaning of "enjoy, use", usually in reference to food or drink, whence modern Hindi bhog refers to "food offered to the gods in prayer and then shared communally". However, from Latin fung also comes our word "fungible", whose meaning "that can serve as another thing" throws open the field of interpretation.

By strange coincidence, our word "fungi" (singular fungus) also comes as a borrowing of Latin fungi, but where Latin fungus is thought to trace from Greek sp(h)oggos ("sponge"). Greek -gg- is usually rendered into Latin as -ng-, as with our word "angel" (Greek aggelos = messenger). However, as ancient Greek sp(h)oggos is usually interpretted as "sea-sponge", a difficulty presents in assigning an Indo-European root to sp(h)oggos since sea-sponges are not native to the Indo-European landscape. [splatt!] Nevertheless, a solution to this problem may be found in the boletus family of fungi, that includes the highly esteemed king bolete (Boletus edulis) that thrives throughout northern Mediterranean and Indo-European forests. As the pilei of these mushrooms house a dense array of tiny vertical tubes, not unlike the pores of a sea-sponge within which develop its spores, Greek sp(h)oggos may trace from this or similar fungus. Interestingly, the tough porous base of the edible Giant Puffball fungus, also widespread across Europe, has a long history of use as a sponge. A fungus solution may also satisfy the food aspects of Sanskrit bhukta and Hindi bhog. Yet Greek sp(h)oggos and Latin fungus are also linked with ancient Armenian sung ("mushroom") and sunk ("cork" or "cork-oak"), which in turn appear cognate with our "punk" (a bracket fungus growing on wood, but also highly inflammable touchwood or tinder) and "spunk" (a fungus-infected wood). On a similar note, our word "spangle", given to a spongey excrescence found on oak leaves, may also apply to the various epiphytic ribbon mosses or lichens (fungi-algae symbionts) often seen dangling from the upper branches of oaks and other trees.

While the derivation of Latin fungi from Greek sp(h)oggos may trace from the spread of Greek settlement all along the Italic peninsula, that commenced well before the end of the second millennium BCE, the civic and religious applications of Latin fung are parallelled by two more ancient Greek words, sponde and sphagia (sphaggia?). The word sponde was given to libations of wine often poured at the commencement and successful completion of certain undertakings, such as a feast, battle, voyage or construction, while sphagia was used for the bloody sacrifices often made at the commencement of such undertakings. While these rituals may have demanded contributions from the community, not unlike modern taxes or duties, the execution of these rituals was no doubt performed by functionaries of the day, usually persons of considerable rank or experience within the community. But as the alcohol in wine is made by a yeast, that is a fungus, the ritual pouring of a small measure of wine upon an altar of fire may have been to raise a fiery mushroom cloud. From at least as early as the Mycenaean era (1650-1150 BCE), long before the official founding of Rome (753 BCE) and the written record of Latin (ca 200 BCE), the ancient Greeks had been making diverse products from or with fungi, including alcoholic beverages, breads/cakes, cheeses, unctions, unguents and medicines, as attested by their great diversity of storage vessels and many of their myths (muthos = "mushroom-lore"?). Indeed, the ancient Greek myth of the bringing of Europa ("Fungus-Face") from the Phoinikian city of Tyre (Greek turos = "cheese") to Europe ("Fungus-Land") may tell of a trade in fungus products. However, as the ancient Greek word for wine (oinos) was originally spelt Foinos, but where the initial digamma (=GG, but written as an F) was dropped very early on, the Latin words for "function" and "fungus" may have derived thus.

Form Follows Fungi

Out of this background emerged the Greek temple. In the Geometric period (1150-776 BCE), Greek temples were mostly built to an elongated-apsidal or finger/fungus-like plan, but come the Archaic period (776-480 BCE), most of these structures were replaced by the Doric temple. Configured as a mother mushroom surrounded and supported by her columnar offspring, not unlike a rectangular fairy ring of mushrooms, the windowless Doric temple may have functioned as farm, factory and storage facility (fridge/freezer/fund) for various fungi and their by-products. In plan, the Doric temple was usually divided into two separate compartments, where the "front room" (Greek naos, Latin cella) often housed an imposing statue or other representation of the patron deity, while the "rear room" opposite (Greek opisthodomos) was mostly used for storage. However, the back of the naos was often partitioned against view and access (Greek aduton = "no-entry"), where whatever transpired in this restricted mid-room is usually considered a "mystery" (Greek mukes-sterion = "mushroom-rising"?). In some temples, a shallow pit was built into the floor of the aduton, that may have served as a live-in larder for one or other fungus. Indeed, the warm red blood and other select parts (sphagia) of sacrificed animals, as well as surplus food offerings from the community, may have been deposited into these pits, or stored in other vessels thereabouts, to feed one or other fungus living in, around or under the temple complex. The fruit, spores and other matter from these fungi can have been harvested, dried or otherwise preserved, and then stored within the temple complex for later use as food, medicine, or other purpose. "Ants" (Greek murmekai, Latin formica) function in much the same manner, where organic matter carried back to their nests mostly goes towards feeding a captive fungus, which in turn sustains the ants. In the Iliad (Greek iluos = "slime"), Achilles, (Greek Axillhs spells out a mushroom-shaped arrow) commanded the army of Murmidions ("Ant-Men").

It is somewhat amusing therefore to read the following in an online architectural article titled "I shall eat roast beef":

Perhaps the first massive criticism of modern architecture stems from 1958, from the young artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. In a "Molding Manifesto", he took up opposition to the "godless and immoral straight line," to a "pathologically sterile" functionalism of "brainless ants lusting after comfortability." In place of this he aimed - though only as a necessary stop on the way to the true architecture - at an "impractical, useless and in the final analysis undwellable architecture." He wanted to achieve this by means of superfluous structuring and destructive ornaments such as rust, mold, moss, microbes and fungi. (Italics and quotations are his, bolding is mine)

While Friedensreich Hundertwasser ("Free-King Hundred-Waters") appears not to have mentioned ants in his Mould Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture, it is doubtful he would have objected to architectural mouldings fashioned as fungi.

(moulding primeval slime)

That Sullivan initially penned "form ever follows function" suggests he was contemplating the divine will of the "Creator" (Greek kreas = flesh), or "Maker" (Greek maxan, mexan), wherefore Sullivan supposes form to have followed function from the beginning and will do so until the end. But with ancient Greek culture focussed largely upon fungi, the ancient Greeks also possessed creation myths involving fungi. The most succinct of these, obtained from the ancient Greek city of Korinthos (Corinth), was recounted by the Roman poet Ovid:

In the beginning, mortals were created from fungi, nourished by the rain.

However, Ovid's account may be a condensed version of a creation myth of the pre-Hellenic Pelasgians, who controlled much of Greece and the Aegean during the second millennium BCE, wherein the goddess Eurunome ("Fungus-Name") is nominated as Creatrix of All Things.

Having risen naked from Chaos, Eurunome was dancing through space when she felt a presence behind. Twirling suddenly about, Eurunome was amazed to discover the great serpent Ophion (Greek op(h)is = "snake"). As the serpent began to coil lustfully around the goddess, Eurunome changed herself into a peleia ("dove" or "pileus"), and thereupon laid the cosmic egg from which all things hatched.

While this myth may herald the caduceus or winged staff of Ermaios (Hermes), in ancient Greek myth, a great many characters have names beginning with Euru- or Euro- ("fungus"). Among the more notable of these characters is Eurustheos ("Fungus-God"), legendary king of Mukenai ("mushroom-hives"), who commanded Erakles (Herakles) to ten or more labours. The grandfather of Eurustheos, Perseus, is credited with having named Mukenai after a mushroom (Greek mukes). Several generations after Eurustheos, Euruannassa ("Fungus-Queen"), also called Euruthemista ("Fungus-Theme"), mothered Pelops, after whom the Peloponessos ("Pelop's Island") was named. Mythical scenes involving these characters often adorned the prominent front and rear metopes of archaic Doric temples.

But while the Greek prefix eu- may denote "good", as with the river Euphrates ("Good-Flowing"), the placement of Greek u (upsilon) directly after a vowel seems to have been pronounced as a "v", as with Biblical Eve (Greek Eua = "life"), or as our word "sovereign" may derive from Greek Ouranos ("Heavenly"). The pronunciation of Greek euros as "evros" thus paves the way for Aphrodite ("Foam-Risen", from Greek aphros = "foam"), and then, by elision or other manipulation of the name, the host of other Greek deities named Eros ("Phallic-Fungus"), Era (Hera, "Mamma-Mushroom"), Erakles (Herakles, "Glory of Era"), and Ephaistos (Hephaestus, "Moulder"). It should be noted that the Greek letter phi (Φ = "ph"), written as a circle with a central vertical stroke, is shaped not unlike a mushroom, while Greek rho (Ρ = "r") compares to a mushroom sliced vertically in half. The Biblical names Abraham, (H)ebrew, (H)ebron and Ephraim may be of similar origin. Coincidently, the ancient Ionic Greek city of Ephesos, situated along the central west coast of Anatolia below the sacred domed mountain Mukale, was deemed to have been founded by Kresos ("Flesh") and Ephesos ("Appetite"). In ancient Greek myth, the second-most populous group of names begin with "Polu-", usually rendered as "Many" or "Much-", but which may reference a submarine class of mushroom such as polyps (Greek poulups = "much pulp"), as would befit a maritime nation. In the sixth century BCE, the Samian tyrant Polukrates ("Polyp-Rule") built the most powerful navy the Aegean and no doubt the Mediteranean had hitherto seen. The classic Greek ship, with its curved hull fitted with multiple banks of oars, central mast and sail, and twin-pronged anchor, also conforms in shape to a gilled mushroom, if not one depicted upside down.


While fungi represent one of the oldest life-forms on this planet, genetic analysis has shown fungi to have evolved around one and a half billion years ago from marine animals, rather than marine plants. Consisting of a motile cell and flagellum, not unlike a jellyfish, the primeval fungi sustained themselves by directly absorbing organic material rather than relying on photosynthesis. During this early period, no life is thought to have lived on land due to an extremely toxic atmosphere.

Stepping forward to the Devonian period (420-350 million years ago), the massive tree-like fossil known as Prototaxites ("before-yews") is now considered a fungus. Tapering branchless specimens, resembling stinkhorn fungi but growing more than eight metres tall by a metre wide, have been found at numerous locations around the world, while plants of this era seem to have grown little more than a metre tall upon shallow-rooted stems no more than a few centimetres thick. In terms of evolution, Prototaxites preceded the tree-ferns of the Carboniferous period (350-290 million years ago), which also reproduced via spores, and the coniferous gymnosperms ("naked-seed") of the Triassic period (240-210 million years ago). Named in 1859 by an American J. W. Dawson, who likened the fossilised remains to an early species of yew (Taxus), microscopic examination by Francis Hueber of the National Museum of Natural History in 2001 revealed the internal structure of Prototaxites was more like a fungus than a plant. Hueber's conclusion was confirmed in 2007 by C. Kevin Boyce et al through chemical analysis. However, Hueber seem to have been anticipated by the science-fiction writer Jules Verne, who described an encounter with giant mushrooms in his 1864 novel A Journey into the Interior of the Earth, also depicted in the 1966 movie of same.

Mushrooms - Jules Verne
Giant Mushrooms from Jules Verne's Journey into the Interior of the Earth.
Prototaxites rendition
Artist Impression of Proto-Taxites. Credit Mary Parrish, National Museum of Natural History

The Gherkin

In central London stands a round green-glassed high-rise nicknamed the Gherkin after its resemblance to the pickled fruit. Conceived by Swiss Re in 1995 and completed in 2004, the building also bears likeness to artistic impressions of the giant extinct fungus Proto-Taxites. However, the Gherkin may play upon yet another architectural form abundant throughout London and the Western World, that is the Corinthian column. Named after the ancient Greek city-state of Korinthos (Corinth), the Corinthian capitals most common throughout the Western World are essentially copies of a pristine example recovered from the ancient sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidavros, which lies about 30km southeast of Korinthos. This type of capital distinguishes from other variants of the style primarily by the treatment of the area above the acanthus leaves and between the large spiralling corner stems, wherein was carved a small pair of opposing spiralling stems capped by a flower resembling a trumpet lily.

Gherkin model - London
"The Gherkin" (model), London.
Stone of Rhea - Delphi
"Stone of Rhea", Delphi,
or a mycelium-wrapped fruit!

However, situated about 20km west of Korinthos lies the ancient Greek city-state of Sikuon, famous since archaic times for its School of Art and dynasty, that is thought to have been named after a species of "cucumber" (whether Greek sikua or sikuos), after having previously been known as Mekona ("poppy or mushroom?"). But while the leaves, tendrils and flowers (which immediately precede the fruit) of many species of cucumber are shaped similar to those of Corinthian capitals, the size and shape of the leaves, stalks and flowers of "zucchini" (perhaps the other of Greek sikua or sikuos) seem to more closely resemble those of the capital. Missing from the capitals, however, is a substantial depiction of the actual fruit, whether in bulbous gourd or tapering cylindrical form. The phallic fruit of cucumber, if not zucchini, was probably the paideros ("Lad's Love") used in the ritual worship of Aphrodite within her sanctuary at Sikuon, whose cult statue was depicted seated, wearing a polos ("sacred hat"), and weighing a mekona ("poppy or mushroom?") in one hand against a melou ("melon?") in the other. Aphrodite was also patron deity of Korinthos, whose sanctuary commanded impregnable Akrokorinthos ("Rock of Corinth").

Living cucumber - Delphi
Wild cucumber fruiting at Delphi.
Corinthian capital - Epidavros
Corinthian capital, Epidavros.

But with ancient Greek ammonitron ("glass", from ammon = sand + nitron = potash) playing upon the ancient Greek mushroom word amanitas, the sponge-tipped plunger within a hypodermic syringe readily compares in shape and substance to a mushroom.

Astute readers will have already recognised that the form of our webpages follows that of a mushroom, namely the Amanita muscaria, where the top navigation provides an acronym of the Greek mushroom word mukes, and the bottom navigation mycelia for the main fungus body.

Back to Top