Formations Studio:
Philosophy and Process

Tristan Al-Haddad and Regina Flanagan

A Conversation with Tristan Al-Haddad, November 17, 2020

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.

(Clockwise from upper left) Formations Studio: Carlos Castillo, Jaemoon Rhee, Shaowen Zhang, Helena Kang, Sky, Miriam Robinson, Lindsay Reyna, Graham Carswell

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 (JCFO) who are re-designing the Mall, figure into the process?

Tristan: Very early on, before I even began sketching, I met with JCFO 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 JCFO 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.

JCFO 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.

James Corner Field Operations’ Theater in the Round, forecourt at Central Library.
Site for public art by Tristan Al-Haddad

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.

Both materiality and technique are important to my work - Tristan Al-Haddad. Photo: Stealth, Atlanta, GA.

Detail of Stealth, Atlanta, GA

Formations Studio during the fabrication of Stealth

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:



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