Oana Stanescu, one of the 4 architects behind an audacious plan to engineer a public, water-purifying swimming pool to float in New York City’s East River, is poised to spend 10 years of her career working on this project. But she describes its origins as a happy accident. “People just reacted to it.” She says, “There were so many positive comments and feedback, we thought we owed it to people.”
What Stanescu says started as a “silly” “doodle” posted online is now on its way to becoming very real. Stanescu and her collaborators have created a nonprofit and raised almost $1 million. They learned how to test and clean river water. They’ve won the support of State Senator Daniel Squadron, High Line cofounder Joshua David, New Museum Deputy Director Karen Wong and many more.
The project started in 2010, when Stanescu, Dong-Ping Wong, Jeff Franklin and Archie Lee Coates circulated a design for a plus-shaped, Olympic-size swimming pool to float on and clean water from the East River. Their concept was to make a filtration system that would remove bacteria, contaminants and odors to make water swimmable and pump over 500,000 gallons of clean water back into the river daily. Within a year, a small Kickstarter campaign raised a little over $40,000 to put towards the project. Developers started reaching out about building it, but weren’t interested in the full depth of the vision.
Stanescu says, “They just wanted a plus-shaped pool as an amenity for their condos. We had no interest in that. But responding to that made us think about what’s important to us.”
The internet origins of the project gave the founding members a sense of commitment to their first fans. “Kickstarter campaigns and public support were such a big part of it, I wouldn’t want it to be something I couldn’t have access to. We felt like this should be for everyone, like Central Park.”
So they started a nonprofit. Though it’s a “whole different job,” than anything they’d done before, a nonprofit allowed them to act as their own client, and preserve the environmental, social goals they originally envisioned.
Stanescu explains, “Typically, design starts with a client and a budget and approaches. He’ll probably first buy the land and figure out what he wants to do, then he approaches the team, puts a team together, then looks for a design. What we did was the opposite. We started off with a design, and now we’re going through site selection, now we’re putting a team together.”
By creating their own nonprofit, the team was able to keep the difficult elements of their plan — like building a filtration system that could purify river water and kicking off a program to teach kids to swim.
She says the team often wonders, “If we were to wait for a client to ask us to build the world’s first self-filtering swimming pool, it would just never happen, right?”
She has a high level of confidence in the project, but there are still plenty of challenges ahead. +POOL plans to finalize and announce the site for the pool by summer 2017, and then has budgeted out 2 years to complete all the permits for a completely new type of public amenity. Stanescu estimates it will take another 5 years to complete the project.
In the meantime, Stanescu and Wong’s firm, Family, continues to work on other projects amenable to the design freedoms and social responsibilities the architects have enjoyed with +POOL. These range from work for friends -- like Need Supply Co. -- to submitting pieces to design competitions and exploring a self-sustaining suburb project near Wong’s hometown in San Diego.
They often get asked what large-scale projects they’ll do next. Stanescu says, in her mind, “the idea is to find different ways of initiating projects where you’re not relying on a client. It’s basically just looking around and thinking about what other resources does the city have that aren’t being used and what other issues are happening in the city. How can we make this place even better?”