Two summers ago, three friends pitched a lovely, if lofty, idea for a new pool in New York City. The project would not resemble the city’s other 55 total indoor, outdoor, and miniature pools. For one thing, it would comprise four pools arranged in an indelible, possibly iconic “+” shape. The designers also boldly proposed dropping it right in the middle of the East River, opposite Manhattan’s skyscraper-studded shore and Brooklyn’s sleepier riverbank. From the initial renderings, only a curvy walkway—a bit tenuous—appeared to tether the pool to land.
The three young designers behind the scheme—Playlab’s Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin and Dong-Ping Wong of Family—delivered their pitch with an irreverent, even naïve, sensibility that belied the huge scope of the idea. The stick figures that populated their floating pool seemed like an invitation for scorn, proof that the project was more of a cool exercise, a speculation, rather than the successor to such paradigmatic urban developments as the High Line.
But two years in, that’s exactly what + Pool has become, or rather, could become: New York’s next great public space. Despite appearances—the shape of the pool hasn’t changed all that much, although the soulless stick figures have been replaced with bathing humans—the project has come a long way since the design trio launched their hugely successful Kickstarter campaign in June 2011. "We’ve made a conscious effort with new renderings and visuals to start showing the pool as a real thing," Coates tells Co.Design. "We’re at this point where it’s shifting from a question of 'Is this thing going to happen?' to more of 'This thing is happening.' That’s a huge tipping point."
Kickstarter helped them raise more than $40,000 to fund water treatment tests in the East River. The tests concluded that the polluted river water could be made swimmable using filtration prototypes that the team—working with the engineering firm Arup and Columbia University—continues to develop. Simultaneous with those tests, the designers are beginning to think about how the filters will be configured in the pool’s architecture: "The design challenge right now," Coates says, "is the filtration system and how it works within the walls of the pool."
Coates, Franklin, and Wong are now back with a follow-up to their first Kickstarter success. With the “Tile by Tile” campaign launched last week, they hope to crowdsource $250,000 for a scale prototype of + Pool that will open this August.
The mockup pool, which the guys call the Float Lab, will host all kinds of tinkering and live-testing of the site’s “real-river conditions.” The prototype will replicate + Pool’s overall form at just over ¼ scale. Four small pools, each subdivided into three chambers, will be embedded into the structure and will collect river water and filter it in successive stages. "We’ll be able to test all the consecutive layers of the filtration at the same time, in-situ," Coates explains. The end goal, he and his cohorts say, is to ensure “clean and safe water for swimming across all standards.”
But there’s more to the story. The Kickstarter campaign will reward backers with personalized tiles—the more you pay, the more you can customize your tile. (It will take 70,000 tiles to build a full-scale + Pool.) The idea for the tiles came early, Coates said, though designers at Ideo helped them flesh it out. The puzzle-like tiles break up the pool into "bite-sized pieces" and give swimmers and New Yorkers the chance to leave their mark on what may prove to be a lasting public monument for the city. If every tile is bought, Coates says, the revenue will cover the pool’s $15 million construction budget, which would mean + Pool would “probably be the largest crowdsourced civic project the world has ever seen.”
The idea of involving the public in the creation of New York’s first floating pool is at the heart of the project, Coates says. "The public’s participation is huge, if not everything. The thought that people could be able to go to the pool and physically see their name on it was too exciting," he explains. "Swimming in that river will be insane enough, but if you can not only swim in it but say "I helped build this," it’ll feel that much more insane."
For now, the designers have set their Kickstarter benchmark at 1,400 tiles. If they sell that many, they’ll be able to erect the Float Lab later this summer—and if so, it will be a huge step forward in the project’s timeline. A second goal of 2,000 tiles and a third of 5,000 will enable the team to complete their custom filtration package and tack on an interactive exhibition space for the public. Coates imagines that the latter will be something of a spectacle but will also give visitors some practical insight into how the pool works. "We’re hoping to have a public exhibition on land where people can see what it’s doing in real time. We’d also love to conduct tours out there to show people close-up, but you might have to be a highly skilled kayaker."