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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Sentient Tangle – An Introduction

Sentient Tangle – An Introduction

Three months ago when we started Sentient Tangle, none of us would have expected to be where we are right now – both as a project, and as a community. What started out as a mechanism study of Reuben Margolin’s kinetic sculptures was followed by a series of mechanical experiments, testing and experimenting. All the while, we were conscious of how we would combine it with our own interests, namely living systems and soft robotics. Fortunately, our surroundings provided the answer to that. Sharing our studio space with other programs proved to be fruitful, as we had the opportunity to witness the Bio-Integrated Design (Bio-ID) program conduct their studio work and research. The thought occurred that we could work together.

Prototype Two: 3D printed PLA structure

Conversations between our two programs followed and pretty soon we found a collaboration with Ziying Jin, a second year Bio-ID Masters student researching the potential of algae as a material in architectural design. Compared to conventional ways of algal cultivation (i.e. liquid media such as ponds or photo-bioreactors), Jin had been researching an ‘attached cultivation’ method. Solid substrates like yarn and fabrics help increase the production of algal biofilms, formed through the accumulation of microalgae, which then has the ability to aggregate microplastics in water. Initially Jin’s research was looking at P. purpureum, a red algae species that exists in brackish water. We’re currently looking at alternative freshwater species.

Armed with our combined research and a conviction to tell a narrative through empathy, our challenge became identifying that narrative and how we would tell it.

Initial algae species researched: P. purpureum

(Left & Middle) Microplastics aggregation on red algae after 30 days;
(Right) Dried out algae sample with microplastics attached.

Then Covid-19 took over the world. The studio and workshop closed down. London shut down. Our way of life as we knew it became different and with it our perspective. With the whole world in a current state of limbo, how do we continue to research and design? Does our story matter at this time when priorities in life has become quite different for everyone? Quoting van Mensvoort (Next Nature) – “The virus teaches us a lesson in modesty.” A reminder that the human perspective is not the only perspective on this planet. (van Mensvoort 2020) But what a revelation!

Sentient Tangle is an exploration of designing sculptural mechanisms alongside a growing biological system – algae. Throughout our past month of research, video conferencing, and accepting the Covid-19 lockdown life, we have slowly pieced together our story. What does it mean to be natural in this day and age? Does the boundary between the definitions of designed artefacts (manmade) and biological systems (“natural”) still exist as we once knew it to be? (Camere and Karana 2018) What story can our project tell in this conversation?

The current model in development

Perhaps we can look at the biological system, algae, as a co-designer in our project, shaping conversations, decisions, and actions the entire way. We had set out to communicate empathy to the audience; unknowingly, we have found empathy in ourselves – the unforeseen emotional investment with algae and our designs. We think that’s a valuable story to tell.

Visit to follow our journey.

Works Cited

Camere, S., and E. Karana. 2018. “Fabricating Materials from Living Organisms.” Journal of Cleaner Production – Issue 186 570-584.

van Mensvoort, Koert. 2020. Next Nature: What will the virus teach us about life? April 04. Accessed April 20, 2020.


  1. CH Tung

    Very interesting project, indeed, at this particular timing. We should all learn from the nature, no against it. This is a humble, but a very good start.

  2. Jessica In

    This is a really lovely collaboration. What is your intention for the Tangle as a sentient organism? Will it just have the goals of the algae (photosynthesis and chasing light) or will it evolve to a higher set of desires, and if so what do you think those desires may be?

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