Just Add Water
What floating architecture can (and can’t) do for cities
When +Pool launched their Kickstarter campaign in 2011 they had killer renderings and a dream: a plus-shaped swimming pool shown floating just north of the Brooklyn Bridge, tethered to land by a curving walkway. Unlike the city’s previous floating pool, now off Barretto Point Park in the Bronx, this one did not import its water from another body of water. It was in and of the East River, “like a giant strainer,” as it says on +Pool’s FAQ page, filtering the unswimmable water into something suitable for a baby. The pool’s unusual shape was intended to flag just that: four pools in one, for children, laps, games and lounging. In the years since, the three designers of the pool have assembled a team of consultants, working through the engineering and architecture required to turn renderings into reality. This summer, a “Float Lab” on Pier 40 is testing their water filtration system in a series of hot-tub sized sections. (So far, so good.)
Pools are far from the only structures floating this summer. There’s a floating skate ramp in Lake Tahoe, a floating nature-viewing platform in London; I’ve seen proposals for a floating ocean metropolis and a floating beach and a floating entertainment palace. (The floating school in Lagos, Nigeria, is something else.) Dubai is still trying to make its World of floating islands work. Many of us dream of summers spent on an inflatable raft, floating in a pool, somewhere else. But now designers are bringing the floats to us, stuck in the city, working weekdays. These inflatable rafts are built not for one, but for a community.
Why floating? Why now? Islands and barges have a long and complicated relationship to urban life, one that isn’t all fun and games.
The tentativeness of these fragments’ connection to our anchored, supposedly stable life on dry ground can create problems as well as solutions. The pleasures of the metaphoric “floating world” depicted in Japanese ukiyo-e prints were not without their dark side. “Escape” doesn’t only go one way.
In the 19th century, New Yorkers bathed in the river, so one can see the ambition to exercise in native waters as akin to the fascination with bringing back our oysters: it’s epicurean, as well as environmental. Real New Yorkers don’t need chlorine, or imported shellfish. But it isn’t only nostalgia that makes us want to float things. Among architect Bjarke Ingels’s first projects was the Islands Brygge Harbour Bath in Copenhagen, a floating pool complex which opened in 2003. It had to float as a way of creating more surface area for recreation; it developed topography, as Ingels’s projects usually do, as a way of distinguishing this pool from an indoor one. People go there, the architects told ArchDaily, “not necessarily to exercise, but primarily to socialize, play and enjoy the sun.” They go there to be somewhere else, on vacation within the urbs, in the city but not of the city.
We used to float urban problems away in a different sense: offshoring prisoners rather than pleasures. In the 18th century British prison ships were moored at Gibraltar, in Bermuda, and off Brooklyn. The Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument in Fort Greene Park memorializes those who died on ships moored in the East River during the Revolutionary War, 11,500 of them. Rikers Island, separated from three boroughs by water, was established as a jail in 1884, and at one time known simply as “The Island.” It was accessible only by boat until 1966. When New York City ran out of jail space in the early 1990s, “The Barge,” a.k.a. the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, was added to the floating penal portfolio and docked off Hunts Point. As residents of that Bronx neighborhood fought for parks and greenways on their waterfront, reclaiming it from industry for leisure, they also fought to have the prison barge removed. The city’s Floating Pool is now docked at one of those new parks.
This mixed heritage points to some of the things that could go wrong with floating as an urban strategy. First, there’s the question of access. If you have to take the subway to get to the water’s edge, do you want to then get on a boat? What does the boat cost? Where is the jumping-off point? This summer, for example, one can pretend the Rockaways are not attached to greater New York City: for $20, you can get to Jacob Riis Park by ferry, skipping the overland journey by public transportation and making the illusion of getaway easier. Governors Island landscape architect Adriaan Geuze told me some years ago, the boat ride offers you the chance to let go. “At Governors Island you arrive by ferry, and you really leave your life of sorrow and pain. That’s what the ferry does for you.”
But in the early years it was open to the public, it was difficult to get people to Governors Island. The ferries, however brief in duration, proved a psychological obstacle – that’s why they were free. Santiago Calatrava generously offered the city a completely oversized gondola system in order to get over the water. Prices drive exclusivity, which can make a public place feel more like a private club. As Curbed recently noted, the +Pool designers have been offered millions to sell their idea for private use, but they are determined to do it without charging admission.
Despite this admirable goal, I wonder about the narrowness of the structure tethering +Pool to land. It suggests limited numbers; it suggests one way in, or out. Who demographically, economically has time to wait? To float something is to cut off all but one way on, and off, the virtual island. In Dubai, the new islands seem to offer another level of spatial exclusivity, as if the existing option of being 40 stories up in an air-conditioned tower were not already enough. Randalls Island, another existing, floating, New York City recreational resource, was cut off from pedestrian and bike access from East Harlem for two years when the 103rd Street Footbridge was closed for repairs. (For decades it was closed overnight and in the winter months, to keep patients from the Manhattan State Psychiatric Center on the island.)
There’s also the cost of floating. We can engineer these fantasies, but should we?
As we work more hours we seem to need closer, wifi-enabled “escapes,” which fuel this boom. (That, and the ease with which one can make a spectacular rendering). I’m not saying designers should stop dreaming. These projects offer a prod to the public imagination as well as the private one. Perhaps +Pool will spur a closer look at the city’s landlocked pool infrastructure, or, even better, ideas on how to improve the city watershed beyond the pool’s borders. Just as some critics fear Citibike distracts from necessary public transportation improvements, these small-scale, high-profile projects remain disconnected from the larger grid by design. It is only as the designs begin to deal with distance, to contend in real terms with the combination of urban life and the vacation fantasy, that islands can become integral parts of the city experience. You can’t float problems away, whether you are on that barge by choice or not.