A little while ago Archie and I went to a bar around the corner from our office to talk about the project we’re working on together called + POOL. Archie runs the art and design office of PlayLab with his best friend Jeff Franklin and together with Oana Stanescu and I, we started an initiative to build the world’s first water-filtering floating pool. It’s an idea that was borne out of a combination of youth, naiveté, ambition, and sweatiness. We were all just starting our practices and had very little, if anything, to lose. We had no idea how to get the kinds of projects we wanted, so we decided to just invent one ourselves. It was really stupid hot that summer and jumping into the East River was particularly tempting.
From the simple idea of a plus-shaped pool that functioned like a big strainer for the river, we launched one of the largest (at the time) civic crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter as Kickstarter was just exploding. We raised enough to test the filtration concept in the rivers of New York (it’s now patent-pending), formed a nonprofit with an incredible board of people from the Highline, the New Museum, Architizer, and the Tribeca Film Festival, and have been working with companies and organizations like Arup, Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory, and Heineken—the last of which has been instrumental this past year in bringing us into the Cities Project, which is basically trying to make cities better all over the world.
Responding to “conflicts of interest,” Archie and I went off on a tangent talking about a bunch of our other client projects, and how much (or little) agency designers often have with client projects, but eventually found our way back to + POOL.
Archie Lee Coates: What’s been amazing about + POOL is that once we proposed the design, it didn’t change much. The only thing that has really changed is funding, and what you can accomplish with what money. Obviously, the public has needs that we’re designing for, like “We don’t want the water below a certain temperature,” but in general those needs haven’t changed much.
Dong-Ping Wong: Do you think we’ve changed how we talk about the project because of funding needs?
ALC: I think in some circles we expand how we talk about it, but the general structure hasn’t changed a lick, which is kind of a beautiful thing.
DPW: That’s kind of crazy.
ALC: We always tell the story of + POOL in 15 to 20 minutes. We talk about how we put four pools together in the shape of a plus, and how it’s a pool for everyone in New York. Although there wasn’t much in-depth research, we did do a survey of pool projects like the one at the Soho House, the public school pools, and the public pool system. We don’t have something in the city that’s between those extremes—that is both designed and feels cool, but services the public in a beautiful and romantic way.
We also never said to ourselves, “Let’s be environmentally friendly.” It’s sustainable only for a certain experience to exist. It came out of the desire for the project, which, in a lot of ways, was a selfish desire. We just wanted to swim in the river.
DPW: I was asked a really good question once, something like if we couldn’t get the filtration to work and had to use chlorine, would we still build this pool? At the moment, in some ways, it’s just not worth our time. And at the end of the day, I don’t like chlorine pools. I want to swim in the river. If we can’t make that happen, there’s no point to this project, in the simplest terms.
ALC: That gets to the conflict of interest question, because imagine we had a client who said “Oh, no, it’s going to be a chlorine pool, because we’ve promised so and so we’d do that.” We’ve promised a lot of things too, and what we’ve promised is to be able to swim in clean East River water for the first time. Chlorination doesn’t really count.
But the crazy thing is—and you can speak to this too—almost no client would think that way.
DPW: Do you think we’ll ever get to a point with + POOL, in which we’ve built up so many constituents, a whole board, and have real money to hold, handle, and be responsible for, that we’re going to have conflicts of interest emerge within the project—especially because we are both client and designer?
ALC: Well, in a sense we already have. I want PlayLab to be able to work on the project and I want Family to be on board. I’d rather not be on the board of directors, because it might be too much of an ego thing—I might want too much ownership of this thing.
DPW: The flip side of that is that the board would have full control over the direction of the project.
DPW: And I trust our board completely—I don’t worry about it at all—but there is potential for them to say, “No, we’re going to build a chlorinated version,” right?
I think about that all the time. We selected the board pretty thoughtfully, and they’ve already proven in conversations that they don’t want to jeopardize the concept. They’re in it for the same reasons we are. And what’s crazy is that we don’t even hold a majority of the board—we are four out of thirteen seats—so they could still vote something down, which would be dark. But ultimately, they know that we’re smart, that we’re very public facing, and that we’re transparent.
DPW: Anyone who would have joined for more opportunistic reasons would quickly find out that it’s way more effort, work, and time than expected. The return is not worth it from a short-term angle. Our team is amazing in that sense.
ALC: There has been a lot of debate about whether competitions are good or bad for architecture. I think they’re a great thing, no matter how you spin it. Without it—in reference to this conversation about research and funding—you would have no evidence of a need.
DPW: The nice thing about a competition is that a design is on the table before supporters sign you up, which means there’s a greater chance that the design will last.
ALC: I learned by talking to people at OMA and AMO that a lot of winning competition projects are killed when they go up for public vote. There’s a community board presentation where community members are given the chance to say, “You know, we don’t like that,” or “We weren’t really consulted in this design.”
This can be avoided by doing things a bit differently in the design and research process, by involving people in a different way, and by communicating in a different way. With + POOL, we’re always going above and beyond to prove a point. Now, all of a sudden, Heineken is saying the things that we have been saying for seven years. And somebody will believe it because Heineken said it.
I think about Heatherwick Studio’s pier project—not the physical design of it, but the initiation of it. I’m on the fence about whether it’s a healthy thing for somebody to say, “I want this thing to exist and because I have the money to commission a great designer to do it, it will get done.” Part of me thinks it’s amazing, because that’s how a city gets built. But I do believe some people should have the ability to comment before it’s forced into becoming reality…
DPW: …no matter how much money they have.
ALC: Right. There will be restrictions that make + POOL a public project, in all senses of the word. I wear a NYC Parks maple-leaf pin and the + POOL pin on my denim jacket every day—I think about the goal we have that the two are really combined. For that to happen, the public is going to have to be involved in a way that’s necessarily difficult to navigate. There will always be some sort of conflict of interest, because everybody has their own perspective on why something should exist, who it’s for, and how public projects can’t solve everything.
Also, why is Heineken giving $2 million to a project like this? The reality is they will sell beer because of it, and their numbers will go up. And their numbers should increase, because their providing us with a gift. At every step in the process with them, they’ve been just like, “What do you need to do, and how can we get behind it?”
DPW: Now that we’ve been a nonprofit for two years or so, and our funding sources are getting more diverse, how important do you think it is, for + POOL and future initiatives, that we work with Kickstarter as a funding platform?
ALC: It’s everything. It went from being four people’s project, to 1,400 people’s project, and then to 3,100 people’s project—that’s the value of the platform. It feels like it’s our job to make it happen for all these people. Once we asked everyone to get involved and made it clear the project was for them too, then we could more romantically say, “Now, please own a piece of it.”
DPW: I love that Kickstarter holds us responsible. To some extent the project can’t be private. It can’t be funded by a single rich person. Even if, at the end of the day, one hundred thousand people come together to pay for it and only the first thousand were from Kickstarter, those first thousand form the soul of the project—they’re how it started.
ALC: Yeah, 100 percent.
DPW: And that’s never changed. We’re beholden to that. We’re not necessarily beholden to the guy with the biggest check.
ALC: I think that’s true. If one person can give $25 and another person gives a million, I don’t really care about the difference, as long as both really want the thing to happen for the right reason. And I think we’ve done a really good job of building a network of people.
DPW: If Ivanka Trump wrote us a check for $20 million, would we take it?
ALC: That’s such an interesting question. I don’t know off the top of my head. Richard Prince gave a check for $30 thousand back for the piece that Ivanka bought. What does that do, really? She still has the piece, and it’ll probably be worth more if she ever sells it. But it started a big discussion, which was pretty amazing.
DPW: I do very much like the fact that we have a choice.
ALC: Right. There’s a difference between the way things are and the way things look. I believe that they’re equally important, sometimes. It’s our job to communicate what we feel is the truth. So, if it looks like a pretty shitty deal, then it’s probably not worth the money. But if there’s a way to really know that it’s not bad and you can communicate that with success, then that’s great, you know?
DPW: I’ve never thought about + POOL as a research project, but in some ways it’s a seven year, going-on-ten year, research project. I think when this thing is finished, we’ll look back and see that everything we did was a test. It proved: “A certain amount of people wanted it and we kept it going.” In our process of research, it was about trying new things every single day to keep the project afloat.
ALC: Even once it’s built.
ALC: I did some short interviews with the director of the + POOL documentary for the Tribeca Film Festival. She asked if we ever had moments of despair and if we ever wanted to give up.
And no, there was never a moment where we thought, “We’re not going to be able to do it,” because at every stage, we focused on problem solving. Once we nailed the general concept and vision down, the next problem was the filtration system. That was too expensive to figure out in one go, so we started with a third of it. We had the luxury of spending our free time on this process, and allowed it to take over our offices, unpaid, for a very long time. It has been a giant test. And every project in our offices afterwards has been informed by it.
DPW: Exactly. In some ways, + POOL is a test project for the thing itself, a pool that is an actual water filter, but I feel like the bigger thing—and the reason both our offices wanted to do it—was to test if this was even possible as a way of working.
BECAUSE IT WILL BE BEAUTIFUL
ALC: So, the question is, would you do it again?
DPW: The weird thing is that I don’t know how to do it again. That’s the crazy thing.
We obviously have the mechanics now for how we work on this kind of thing, and we could literally lay out step-by-step what we’ve done to do it again, and probably do it successfully in terms of getting the project made. But it’s one of those things: the initial idea is both the least consequential thing on the project, and the most consequential thing…
ALC: I think the most inspiring artists in the world are NASA and Jeanne-Claude and Christo. They’re both going after an unknown. They don’t know exactly how it’s going to come together, but they’re very clear on their mission. They’re going to figure it out. The mission is the question mark.
And for Jeanne-Claude and Christo (and now just Christo) figuring it out takes a very long time—ten or so years. He wants to build a tower out of oil barrels in the desert in the Middle East. That obviously has a different set of constraints than wrapping eleven islands in a sort of fabric that wasn’t invented. That is the inspiring thing. That is what I always wanted from + POOL: “How do you make it?”
I read that when someone asked Christo why he wanted to do Surrounded Islands, he said, “Because it will be beautiful.” This goes back to justification in terms of experience. The residents that live a mile away from this sculpture didn’t ask for the islands to be covered in fabric for two weeks—they don’t know to ask for it.
DPW: I’ve been thinking, more and more, that architects are really bad at just coming up with stuff. They’re good at responding to a problem or a prompt—
ALC: —making common sense out of it.
DPW: —and editing and making a solution. Part of this is how we’re trained, and part of this is just how the profession is set up. But what seems hard for architects is qualifying within themselves what’s a worthwhile pursuit without somebody else validating or determining it for them. Christo knew that pink islands were going to be beautiful and it wasn’t like he needed a client to approve it, he didn’t need to run it by a bunch of people first, he didn’t need a Kickstarter, necessarily, to validate that it was worthwhile. He just knew. He was like, “This is so good, I’m going to dedicate 10 years to doing this.”
ALC: Which architects, in your mind, do that?
DPW: I don’t think anybody does.
ALC: I think about a successful practice, like BIG, who figured out a great way to collaborate with developers and clients—that’s what he does really well, and it’s impressive, right? I read this article by their CFO…1
DPW: …was that the one where she laid out the points for growth?
ALC: …Yeah, eight key points for growth, and finding efficiencies, and whatever. They just do that so well. It’s impressive. The studio just figures out how to save money for the client, makes their money worthwhile, and still delivers something that retains its core concept. But they’re always going to fall short of the ideal because of the client and the money. Why doesn’t BIG initiate buildings?
DPW: One of their projects was an inspiration for + POOL in terms of its initiative. It was in Copenhagen, and I want to say it was for an abandoned soccer field, or a bunch of soccer fields that a developer wanted to turn into housing. They just saw it in a newspaper, or saw someone talking about it, and just decided to come up with a proposal and get it published as a way to save the field. And they came up with this really simple, really good idea.
ALC: Did they build it?
DPW: No. But I asked Bjarke at a small lecture he gave at the same time we were starting + POOL about where he got the money to work on it. And he said people worked on it off-hours. Which is of course totally understandable, and more or less what we did, but definitely not sustainable.
ALC: Yeah, the money has to come from somewhere. In structuring our office, we’re trying to figure out how to save money in the way we bill clients—even if that means two out of the four of us in the office are working on something. But also, we don’t want to count pennies in a way that chokes the mystery and the serendipity that you get from having people working together on something.
DPW: One of the most important, but super tiny, aspects of starting + POOL was that we won a previous competition.
ALC: Yeah, you donated the money to our cause.
DPW: I had $2,500 and I asked you if that was enough to design and build a website. And of course it was. It paid itself back in infinite amounts. That’s such a small amount as seed capital, but it was so important as a way to reach out to people on a professional, legitimate level.
ALC: Right. That’s why if you asked me if I’d do + POOL again, I don’t know if I could give you an answer right now. As a fan of Family, I’m very interested in what is next.
DPW: Well, it’s crazy because now both our offices have staff, now we run real businesses. Mainly, I’m thinking about how much of the work we’re doing is just to keep the lights on—making sure that we’re not firing staff, but also making sure that the work we’re doing is because it’s the kind of work we want to do.
+ POOL is the only project where I’m like, “This is exactly, across all channels, everything we want to do.” Everything else is either 90 percent rad or even sometimes 20 percent rad. + POOL helps us get through those months. It’s a compromise that I’d love not to have, but at the same time, not only is it the reality, but it’s also what it means to “work for it.” There’s no other job in the entire world that would be more appealing to me now than what we do. You know what I mean?
ALC: That’s what we tell our staff. If I don’t see that hunger or that level of stress in your voice when you’re presenting something to me, then you shouldn’t be at PlayLab. Because stress isn’t a bad thing. I need the people I work with to feel like the world is going to end if this thing doesn’t get on the table. And it’s a hard thing to justify that to somebody, but it’s the truth. It should feel hard, or a little painful, you know?
DPW: I don’t feel like I can ask staff-dudes to commit to the level of work that you or I or Jeff or Oana does. That said, if this job is just a job that allows you to do other stuff, you can find a better job for that. You can find a job that pays more and that has better hours.
ALC: Yeah, that’s exactly the thing.
DPW: There’s nothing keeping you from leaving, there’s no hard feelings.
ALC: You’re not an indentured servant. You believe in the mission. But it’s your job to be very clear about what the mission is, and give people small and big rewards. Yeah, that’s going to be the hard thing about growing the studio, initiating more ideas, and getting funding for those ideas.
ALC: And, honestly, that is the answer. It’s time and building. I’ve been obsessed with photos of Barack Obama on vacation with Michelle. There’s this new one of him on a yacht with Oprah Winfrey too.
DPW: Was he still on vacation?
ALC: Yeah, in the South Pacific. That image says “I worked very hard at something I believe in and I need some time”—which is awesome. And the only way you can get to that image is by doing something revolutionary. You can have Leonardo DiCaprio on a yacht—he’s performed some really great things—but there’s something that Barack has done that’s big. And you’re like, “The only way to do that, literally, is to do a ton of work and get gray hair.”
DPW: In order to get to do the raddest stuff, you have to put in your time with some pretty unrad stuff.
ALC: 100 percent. One of the personal reasons I’m all in with + POOL is that, growing up—and this is the double-edged curse of my life—I was interested in everything. I was painting; I wanted to do rock climbing; I wanted to be in a band; I had a guitar; I was trying to sing. For whatever reason, none of these things stuck. And my dad always said, critically, “You can’t go through the motions.” That stuck in my head.
With + POOL, I think to myself: “Dad, I’m not going through the motions on this one, I’m going all the way.” He even asked me the last time I was home if I ever thought about getting a real job. One of our critics even recently said, “Does your mom know what you’re doing?” And I was like, “I’m not going to get mad at your question, but my response is: shut up, I made my own job.” It’s going to take a second. It’s going to be hard. To that he asked, “Aren’t you exhausted?” And I was like, “Yup, I’m so exhausted, bro.”
But at the end, when we’re standing on the deck of the pool, and we’re about to jump in for the first time, all this craziness is going to feel like we’re sixteen again.
- 1. Sheela Sogaard, “BIG Lessons: Eight Key Points That We Focus(ed) on in Our Growth Process,” Design Intelligence, March 21, 2017, https://www.di.net/articles/big-bjarke-ingels-group-growth-process/. ^
Dong-Ping Wong is a founding partner of Family and co-founder of Friends of + POOL, the world’s first water-filtering floating pool for New York City and one of the largest crowd funded civic projects in the world. Dong is a frequent public speaker at international venues such as the Municipal Art Society Summit, Olso Design Council, AIGA Design Week, Core 77 Conference, PSFK Conference, TedX and the World Summit on Innovation. Before founding Family, Dong graduated from Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University with a Masters in Architecture and UC Berkeley with a Bachelors of Arts in Architecture. Dong has worked at OMA, Snohetta, EHDD and REX, where he met Oana.
Archie Lee Coates IV is a partner at PlayLab, Inc., an extremely multi-disciplinary New York art practice founded in 2009, faculty at School of Visual Arts’ Design for Social Innovation, and executive director of + POOL, a water-filtering floating pool in New York for everybody.