Nimbus is a sculptural complement to the Theater in the Round by James Corner Field Operations in the forecourt of Minneapolis Central Library between 3rd and 4th Streets. The piece, constructed like an airplane wing and cantilevering 45-feet over the sidewalk, creates a visceral experience of light, form, and phenomena. It provides a framing threshold for pedestrians to pass through while simultaneously embracing those seated below in the Theater in the Round. The artwork is constructed from weathering steel and at night, will flood the site with a halo of light.
A Conversation with Tristan Al-Haddad, November 17, 2017
Formations Studio is the creative practice of Tristan Al-Haddad, architect and visual artist who is creating a monumental sculpture that complements James Corner Field Operation’s Theater in the Round in front of Central Library. Tristan’s studio engages in acts of art, architecture, science and research by working across multiple disciplines and with many collaborators. I interviewed him over lunch in mid-November when he was in Minneapolis.
Regina: Tell me about your studio and how it is organized; it presents an interesting model and includes a highly international group of predominantly young designers and artists, some with unusual backgrounds. Jaemoon Rhee is from Korea and his interests include parametric design and digital design. Several collaborators list digital fabrication and computational design. Carlos Castillo from Columbia, South America is interested in earth building construction. Two collaborators have fine arts degrees from the Savannah School of Art and Design with backgrounds in illustration and printmaking. What are their roles?
Tristan: There are conceptual and pragmatic answers to this question. Even though I had no intention of being a teacher, I developed that sensibility – a desire to train people, to give technical/explicit training, and also to develop people creatively, emotionally, intellectually – that’s important to me, and that is how I teach.
Great artists or designers have something in them that gets developed. It’s hard to teach someone how to be a great artist or designer. But I can provide stimulation and motivation.
The pragmatic answer is that it’s cost effective to hire young people and you can train them in the way that you want; they’re pliable.
I don’t consciously seek out gender or ethnic diversity, but I embrace it. What I’m doing draws a diversity of people and I’m comfortable in places with diverse thinking and ideas. I want to lead my studio – I’m at the helm – but I get better and I get smarter when everyone contributes.
The flip side is sometimes when you challenge them to contribute, to collaborate – and they don’t do it – how long do you let something linger in someone’s court if they’re not going to pick it up?
We also have age diversity in the studio. Sky, who has a background in the film industry, spent 30 years in Los Angeles as a camera operator. Then he moved to Atlanta for a film and stayed. I found him on Craig’s List. He doesn’t have a design or art background. He walked into the studio and was not what I expected; he’s this sort of hippie and he walks up to me and gives me a hug. He was so excited about the creativity of the studio and trying something new in life. He provides leadership and has a lot of experience in fabrication.
There are several ways that I find and hire people; through former students and advertising on Craig’s List and then I conduct conventional interviews until I find the right person. I also use an established network and word-of-mouth. My team brings in others, which is an automatic vetting process.
Strengths, potential, training, computational skills; all are important… Some people have less training but are more excited about learning. I’m willing to train people if they show potential. You can’t teach people and can’t instill core values about being excited about work and having integrity – when I see that in a person, I know they are right for my studio.
Regina: How does a project come together? Describe your working process for the Nicollet Mall project and how your studio collaborators contributed to it.
Tristan: I set the conceptual agenda and formal strategy in collaboration with the team and then ask for contributions. Project manager Helena Kang accompanied me during this visit to Minneapolis. She came to me with a degree from the University of Michigan and basic undergraduate skills. Helena produces models, renderings and simulations in my studio. It’s been so exciting to see her develop and accelerate from 20 mph to 200 mph in just two and a half years – this is rewarding to see. Helena has become an expert in visual tools.
Two people worked with me on the Nicollet Mall project in addition to Helena: Carlos Castillo and Ailin Wang who were involved in early speculations. We examined the bounded space of the form and responded to the site and how to transform it.
I start with conceptual ideas which are often nebulous, then it’s about obsessive sketching. New ideas, diagrams – letting that evolve into form – by thinking through drawing.
Regina: There’s something special that happens through the activity of sketching – like getting into the zone.
Tristan: Drawing yields provocative sketches and diagrams that I take into the computer myself, developing the morphology, geometry, texture, pattern. Meantime, the team begins to build out the site; drafting and rendering the surrounding buildings using Rhino software.
When I get the piece close, I hand it over to my staff to work on for two weeks and then we’ll put it on the wall and have a conversation. We go through a few cycles until we’re all happy – or until I’m happy; I have final authority.
Regina: How did James Corner Field Operations (JFCO) who are re-designing the Mall, figure into the process?
Tristan: Very early on, before I even began sketching, I met with JFCO in New York. Collaboration and integration are required in the context of the Theater in the Round. We established an agenda and intent and went on to share development drawings. I had numerous conversations with JFCO staff including Lisa Tziona Switkin, Principal-in-Charge and Megan Born, Landscape Architect. Later, during a day-long charette at their office, I showed an iconic and integrated work and they were supportive of further development.
JFCO staff commented on the views to-and-from the Theater in the Round. They suggested shifting the base of the sculpture off-center to allow views from the stair into the stage; consequently, the piece has three-and-a-half sides. We produced over 300 renderings and visual simulations to study the views, and several iterations considering the physical constraints of the site, and landed on a form.
The collaboration with my engineering partner, Jim Case, Senior Partner of Uzun+Case Consulting Engineers in Atlanta, is also of critical importance in taking an immaterial idea (the formal) and creating a visceral work in the material world. Jim applies his structural intuitions and engineering expertise to my nebulous imagination – and we come out on the other side with an extraordinary work.
Both materiality and technique are important to my work. Materials have to be authentic; for example Stealth, my 2015 sculpture in Atlanta, employs the quality and resonance of concrete. I’m inspired by Vilem Flusser, a Czech-born philosopher who lived in Argentina, then France, and wrote about form and matter and how it gives everything its essence – “If ‘form’ is the opposite of ‘matter’, then no design exists that could be called ‘material’: It is always in-forming. And if form is the ‘How’ of matter, and matter is the ‘What’ of form, then design is one of the methods of giving form to matter and making it appear as it does and not like something else.” – Vilem Flusser, Form and Material, in The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design, 1999.
Regina: You have equal interest in new forms and new technology. New forms that can be modeled and fabricated – with a new vocabulary.
Tristan: Technique involves new methods of achieving ideas. Stealth just won an international award of excellence from The American Concrete Institute for the novel use of concrete. Why build a 36-foot tall concrete sculpture? People don’t get it until they go up and touch it. Materially the piece is alchemical, rendering reinforced concrete as an indistinguishable gray matter of light, shadow, and sensually smooth fluid mass.
An upcoming blog post in February will reveal Tristan Al-Haddad’s design entitled “Nimbus” created especially for Nicollet Mall. Sign up here to receive a notice when this story is posted.
To learn more about Tristan Al-Haddad and Formations Studio visit: http://formations-studio.com/work
The mystery of this strange world we live in—we get used to it. We stop realizing how amazing it is, because it becomes commonplace. What can I do as an artist that can gently pop people out of that state of mind and get them to see differently or clearly, even just for an instant? – interview with Arlene Goldbard, 2011.
If you’ve taken in a Twins game at Target Field, chances are you’ve seen and experienced one of Ned’s works. The Wave effectively disguises a parking garage, and forms an animated backdrop for the entry plaza to the ballpark. Comprised of thousands of counter-weighted stainless steel flaps or vanes that undulate and shimmer with the slightest breeze, reflect the sky during the day and programmed colored lighting at night, the work needs no explanation – rather, we perceive it with our senses and appreciate the quietly festive ambiance it lends to the space.
Ned holds a degree in environmental science and began his career as an artist when he apprenticed to scientist Frank Oppenheimer at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco. He went on to serve 17 years in the Exploratorium’s famous artist-in-residence program; one of the nation’s earliest, started in 1974. He created interactive sculptures inspired by atmospheric physics, geology, astronomy and fluid motion that enabled visitors to observe and interact with these phenomena.
Many recent artworks reveal the way patterns emerge when things flow while activated by the forces of wind, water or light. Ned views these works as crude scientific “sensors” which reveal some invisible or unnoticed phenomena – capturing the mysteriousness of the world around us. He is fascinated with the idea of an artwork becoming a scientific instrument, a register of phenomena, and with blurring the boundaries between art, architecture, science and nature.
Ned presents his work both in scientific settings and in art contexts. His work may be interpreted as educational, as scientific demonstrations, or as aesthetic objects. Asked whether his work is more science or art, he says, “…they’re definitely not scientific experiments, because they’re often much more uncontrolled and complicated… On the other hand, they’re not really artworks in the traditional sense… In the things that I make, even though I’ve created the physical structure, it’s really not me that’s doing the sculpting.”
He maintains a studio with five other artists in Santa Rosa, California and is in the process of designing a large scale, iconic art piece especially for Nicollet Mall. Check Artist’s Process for periodic updates to see Ned’s drawings and models, as they evolve.
To learn more about Ned’s past work and its influences, inspirations and intentions read here
Tristan is an architect and visual artist who creates monolithic sculptural forms whose function is not so much to be the centerpiece of a space, but to create a place – their physical scale invites people to pass through them, sit on them, interact with them. The geometric forms shape-shift when viewed from different angles, and from close-up and farther away. He says that his work is, “really about an experiential condition. It’s about the body’s existence in space, and how it makes you feel.”
Finding the right materials to create sculptural forms preoccupies Tristan. To create a sinuous cantilevered portal sculpture for downtown Atlanta, Georgia, he worked with chemists for two years to devise a special mix that was both high-strength and able to flow and compact well, enabling a reinforced concrete structure without a steel skeleton – a very daring and innovative structure.
Tristan’s attention to materials impressed contractor Jason Adams who built the artwork. He has collaborated with architects on many large-scale commercial construction projects and says that most architects will draw something really great, then just throw it in the contractor’s lap – ‘Okay… now build it.’ Tristan is the only architect Jason had ever met who wanted to be a part of every process and he found Tristan’s deep understanding of materials and construction really exceptional.
Formations Studio, Tristan’s creative practice in Atlanta, Georgia, features collaborators across many art and design disciplines, and from a diversity of cultural backgrounds. The studio’s work is focused on projects from the intimate scale of furniture and small objects, to large-scale sculptural environments and architecture. Tristan is an Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Architecture where he is a research faculty member in the Digital Building Laboratory and the Digital Fabrication Laboratory.
Tristan is designing an engaging monumental form, a key feature on the Mall, to animate the entrance to Central Library. Visit here for periodic updates including models, drawings and animations by the artist.
To learn more about Tristan’s past work and his experiments with new materials read here
Blessing’s work invites you to enter into a relationship. She creates site- and place-specific sculptures that may change color in response to your touch, a sound, or even your heartbeat. You may be able to sit within it, joined by your friends. It glows at night, pulsing with color, or its luminous, translucent forms read against the sky and clouds during the day. Light is the connective thread that runs through her work, and she believes in its ability to enliven a space.
Participation begins during design and continues through the completed artwork; community engagement is an essential part of her working process. Whether supplying sparks during conceptual design that help the artist define the overall direction for the piece, or animating the work once installed through interaction with it – the public plays a key role.
Blessing is creating twelve lighting elements as part of Nicollet Mall’s “light walk” between Sixth and Eighth Streets. Four local emerging writers are working with her: R. Vincent Moniz; Junauda Petrus; Moheb Soliman; and Sagirah Shahid, all of Minneapolis. They will create unique short poems inspired by the Mall and reflecting present-day life in Minneapolis for text to be cut out of the spherical lighting forms.
Inspiration for the Nicollet Mall work comes from Blessing’s Ballroom Luminoso created for an underpass in San Antonio, Texas. A series of six brilliantly lit, color-changing chandeliers constructed of recycled bicycle parts, each sculpture contains a custom-designed LED light fixture which casts sharply detailed overlapping shadows. The piece transforms a forgotten space into one that connects the community and in 2013, won SXSW Eco’s Place by Design “Transformative Design Award”.
This will be Blessing’s second work in Minnesota – her first, commissioned through the State’s Art in Public Places program, is at North Hennepin Community College’s Bioscience and Health Careers Center in Brooklyn Park. Affinities incorporates patterns of science and new technology into contemporary art. The interactive wall sculpture has a surface pattern generated by computational geometries found in both biological and chemical processes. Moveable translucent resin panels enable the public to construct their own connections between educational disciplines within a network of associations; the artwork establishes a formal learning environment that changes with its users.
To learn more about Blessing’s background and studio read here
 Anna Makulska, University of Derby, UK. Unpublished interview.
 Greenwald, Jeff. “Forces of Nature”, New Scientist, 16 October 1999 (No. 2208).
 O’Neil, Gail. “Tristan Al-Haddad’s shape-shifting sculpture “Stealth” enlivens Midtown stretch.” ArtsATL online at: http://www.artsatl.com/2015/10/stealth/ Visited October 6, 2015.
 Ibid., O’Neil. Quote from Jason Adams, Sinclair Construction Group.