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What Happens When You Kickstart The Biggest Project Of Your Career–In Your 20s

Seven years after pitching their idea, the young designers behind +Pool are ready to build. Is the city ready to let them?

In 2010, designers Jeffrey Franklin, Archie Lee Coates IV, and architects Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu used Kickstarter–then only a year-old platform–to pitch a bold new capital project: an Olympic-sized, plus-sign-shaped public pool that would float off the shore of one of New York’s rivers. The so-called +Pool, which would also filter the river’s sewage-infested water through its walls, garnered an incredible amount of attention and support from both New York City residents and city officials. In the first six days, the campaign hit its goal of $25,000, then went on to raise nearly twice that amount.

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Anyone who has backed a Kickstarter project knows it is a risk. Plenty of less ambitious undertakings than +Pool have either fell short of their funding goal or ultimately failed to deliver. It wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if such an unprecedented proposal had done the same.

Yet +Pool has, against all odds, continued. After three years, support for the ongoing project was still strong–Time magazine named it one of the 25 best inventions of 2013. That same year, the team behind +Pool raised $300,000 more with a second Kickstarter campaign to fund the testing of their new technology–an infiltration system that brings river water up to pool-quality standards without the use of chemicals. They’ve recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for $40,000, and have put on multiple fundraising parties and exhibitions. In 2015, they incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit, with Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David on their board. Most recently, they announced a partnership with Heineken’s urban environments initiative, The Cities Project, aimed at getting 100,000 to sign a petition in support of the project to prove its appeal to the city government.

What they have not done, in seven years time, is build a self-cleaning pool in one of Manhattan’s rivers.

[Image: Family New York/Courtesy of Friends of + POOL]
“We sort of approached the design of public space backwards,” Coates tells Co.Design. Though they crowdsourced financial support, designed the pool, and tested the +Pool infiltration system both in Brooklyn and with a mini “Float Lab” in Hudson River Park, the team has yet to secure city permits or site approval from the local government–something some early critics of the project were skeptical of. They are now stuck in a kind of bureaucratic limbo: The next steps are to finalize site-specific designs and seek construction permits, but they can’t move forward without a city-approved site and the support of both the mayor’s office and the Department of Public of Health.

Partnering with Heineken might be a way to break through that purgatory. The beer company’s Cities Project has previously partnered with LCD Sound System’s James Murphy in his effort to turn the MTA’s turnstiles into musical instruments, and it has experience working with the city. The hope is that Heineken’s financial and marketing support–along with the petition–will be the final push needed to get city officials fully on-board and to secure a site to build out the pool.

The trio behind +Pool has been at this since their mid-twenties, after beginning their professional careers with an idea bigger than what an average mayor could ever hope to achieve. Nearly a decade after they introduced the idea to the public, will they finally get to finish what they started?

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When Your Career Runs In Reverse

When they started working on +Pool, Franklin and Coates were both 25 years old. Stanescu was 27, and Wong was 30. Their now-successful New York design studios, Playlab, run by Franklin and Coates, and Family, run by Wong and Stanescu, were at the time just starting out. And while the four designer-architects knew that building a floating, self-filtering pool in a Manhattan river was a radical idea, they didn’t quite realize the extent to which they’d need to work with and around the city to get it built.

[Image: PlayLab/Courtesy of Friends of + POOL]
If the team is tackling a public park in reverse, as Coates suggests, it also seems true that the four designers behind +Pool embarked on their careers backwards. Architects can spend decades working on small projects and handling the tedious details before getting the opportunity to design headline-grabbing work. It’s even unusual for a whole architecture office to handle the entirety of a project like this–rather than spreading it out over engineering firms, developers, fundraisers–much less an architecture studio of four. Nevertheless, the designers behind +Pool first careened on the design scene with an idea that caught the attention of an entire city, and have since been handling it largely on their own.

They’ve also been building out their respective practices in and around their ambitious side project. Playlab, a branding and strategy studio, has made a name for itself with works that lie at the cross-section of art, graphic design, and architecture. The studio has done various video-based and installation work, in addition to publishing the popular architecture journal Clog. Meanwhile, Family is now known for designing immersive environments, most recently in the form of a retail space for the brand Off-White in Hong Kong and a stage design for Kanye West. 

With +Pool, the trio have always had a time-consuming side project–their first big project that they took on as professional designers. “Seven years later, this is by far the biggest undertaking for all of us,” says Coates. “It might be the biggest thing we ever do.”

Yet plunging in head first seems to have worked for the designers, who haven’t stopped moving forward with the project. For one, they started out their careers with name-recognition, which certainly hasn’t hurt their respective businesses. They also got a crash course in funding a major public space project, and working with various partners and factions of the city to make it a success. For their two design firms, the long process behind +Pool has provided useful information.

Finding A Mentor–And Road Map–In The High Line

Franklin, Coates, Wong and Stanescu all have an educational background in architecture, so they had an idea of the work that went into building out a public space. But +Pool isn’t like other architecture projects–there’s no permit classification for a floating river park. After the team dreamed up the original idea and launched the Kickstarter, they went about it the best they knew how: trial and error.

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“A lot of it had to do with building communities and reaching out to the right people at the right time,” says Coates. “At the beginning we were shooting fish in a barrel. We would have a conversation in our studio and say it would make sense if [the Parks and Rec Department] was involved, and then we’d email all of them. We would cold-call the Department of Health and say we need advice for how to legally and safely build a pool for hundreds of people in the East River.”

Eventually, they met Joshua David, who along with Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line, the citizen interest group dedicated to turning the elevated rail tracks in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood into the public park it is today. David and Hammond started working toward the High Line in 1999, and for 15 years fought for the park through calls for demolition, a lawsuit, a change in city leadership, and a rezoning plan before it was completed in 2014. It’s an unusual example of a private-public partnership: the citizen-led nonprofit assumed full responsibility for the cost of operations from the start, yet the city paid most of the construction costs of the first two sections. Other sections of the park relied on private donations given by some of the city’s biggest philanthropists. For +Pool, the High Line’s unusual roadmap offered valuable lessons.

“Josh David set the stage for how private citizens can set into place ideas that others can rally behind,” says Coates. When the team met David shortly after +Pool launched, he warned them that the pool would take much longer than they had planned, if it happened at all. He also told them that they should set up a nonprofit and put him on the board. In 2015, after using the funds raised with the second Kickstarter to build a test “Float Lab” in the Hudson River, the trio decided to incorporate as a 501c3 called Friends of +Pool. They now have nine members on their board, including David.

The main reason they become a nonprofit, says Coates, was to ensure that the project was community-focused moving forward. “We have this piece of technology,” he says. “If we look at it architecturally, it’s a product, because it’s more about the filtering than the design. But for us it is a public project. We’re actively carving out a place for New Yorkers to swim.”

It would also be the first project funded through Kickstarter to go on to become a piece of civic architecture, and one of the few examples of a Kickstarter-turned-businesses that is not-for-profit.

The idea is to become a model for how capital projects can be initiated through crowdfunding–arguably a new example of citizen-led public use development. David and Hammond met at a community board meeting before embarking on the High Line project, driving grassroots support, the support of the city government, and generous support from the city’s deep-pocketed philanthropists. Friends of +Pool has also garnered a mix of public and private funding–applying for grants and throwing fundraising parties–but a lot of its support has come from individuals on Kickstarter. Their hope is that their project will lead the way for other large-scale public space projects to be partially funded through crowdsourcing.

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When Kickstarter Collides With The Real World

For +Pool, working backwards has had its advantages: They were able to design the pool in their own vision, and work with experts at places like the engineering firm Arup, the Brooklyn-based naval architects at Persak & Wurmfeld, and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to build a filter that can clean river water to pool quality standards without using chemicals. They’ve attracted the attention of moneyed investors, and have been able to decide who to work with on their own. And they haven’t had to compromise on their fantastical vision because of the regulations and bureaucracy of city governance.

But they also haven’t been able to build it. After a 2016 study looking at 10 different locations throughout the city, the +Pool team has narrowed it to four sites in Brooklyn and Queens. Their favorite, Coates says, is Brooklyn Bridge Park, because the infrastructure already in place with the piers there will be useful for building out the pool. Though they’ve shown this study to the mayor’s office, the city is hesitant to approve a site without evidence that there is still community support for the project after the years it’s been in the works. The Heineken partnership is an effort to push that through: If 100,000 people sign a petition in support of the pool, the beer company will donate $100,000, and the city will hopefully have the proof they need to grant a site.

To the +Pool team, the community aspect has been there all along, and is the force that keeps driving them forward with the project they started seven years back, even as their professional work piles up. “There isn’t an hour that passes where someone doesn’t write to +Pool about something,” says Coates.

“At the end of the day I went to architecture school and studied people like Jeanne-Claude and Christo,” he adds. “That’s what I had in my mind. These projects can take a while, but they’re worth it.”

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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