An Upstart New York Architect Dreams Up a Swimming Pool in the East River

Categories: Longform

All images courtesy and Dynamic Theories
This was not, Dong-Ping Wong insisted for the millionth time, a prank phone call. No, please don't hang up. He just wanted to talk about how to clean pool water.

But the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene official on the other end of the line still wasn't entirely convinced. No, she hadn't read Wong's email, but she didn't need to; she'd spent the past 45 minutes listening to this man, who claimed to be an architect, talk about building a pool in the East River. And filling it with . . . river water?

"Does your mother know what you're doing?" the woman asked him. Wong was used to this.

"OK," he said, "let's assume I'm a crazy person. Just give me one last thing. Indulge a crazy person. Have you seen the video I sent you?"

She hadn't.

He told her he'd wait.

She pressed play. Phone to his ear, Wong could hear his own voice in the background: "We're here because we want to build a floating pool."

"You do look crazy," she said finally. And, at least in terms of the video, maybe he did: disheveled black hair, tie-dye-spattered T-shirt, round grandfather glasses. Beside him on a couch, staring into the camera, were two similarly scruffy men, also wearing T-shirts. All three were hunched toward the camera, elbows on their knees. This was a business pitch?

Wong said nothing. A minute went by.

"Oh," the woman said.

Another minute. Wong heard her clear her throat as the video faded out.

"You know, I'm a bit of an artist myself," she said. "I understand when people try to do creative things.

"You do look crazy," she added. And then she told him what he needed to know.

The woman from the health department was more right than Wong let on. From the beginning, he'd known the floating pool idea was crazy.

Back in the winter of 2010, Wong had found himself thinking about the two very different kinds of summers he had known in his life. Born to Chinese immigrant parents in San Diego, he'd spent the summers of his childhood surfing the Pacific. He was in the water more than he was out of it. Then there were the summers in New York, where he moved in 2003 for an architecture graduate program at Columbia University. His adopted home, like his first one, was on the water, but in the six sticky, fetid city summers he'd lived here, Wong, now 34, had never so much as dipped a toe in either of New York's rivers. Neither, come to think of it, had anyone else he knew.

Not that he particularly wanted to; the brown, murky depths of the rivers around the city were a far cry from the inviting blue of the Pacific. But what if there were a way to make it possible to swim those waterways? What if he could design a giant pool and just, like, drop it in the middle of the river?

Wong, who'd founded his architecture firm, Family (he was originally the only employee; there are now two), at the height of the recession, was enjoying a newfound professional freedom after years of working for other people. Presenting himself as a freelance alternative to more established architecture firms, he was, for the first time, able to choose only the projects that allowed him to indulge his creativity, and he was reveling in it. Inspired by his reverie, he picked up his pencil and began scribbling.

And thus, + POOL was unceremoniously born.

Dong-Ping Wong and his partners hope to have + POOL in the water by 2016.
"It seemed kind of like a funny idea that you don't really take seriously," Wong says today. Slender and bespectacled, he looks every bit the hipster, but he lacks the trademark irony. He's smiling, sincere, straightforward. He makes earnest eye contact.

"We need a better origin story," he adds, grinning.

Maybe. But where the project comes from is less important than where it's headed. Four years after that inaugural doodle, Wong and his two partners, Archie Coates and Jeff Franklin, both 30, are perhaps only a few summers away from getting that funny idea into the water — and, they hope, redefining the relationship between 8 million New Yorkers and the rivers that surround them.

[Single page]

Sponsor Content

New York Concert Tickets

From the Vault