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The Canadian mind behind Big Apple innovation

Claire Weisz, a Canadian architect working in New York at WXY Architecture.

WXY Architecture/WXY Architecture

Architect Claire Weisz loves a challenge. "The tough thing is the fun thing," she says, happily asserting that anything worthwhile takes a lot of work.

The city of New York has benefitted from Ms. Weisz's tenacity and interest in civic and public places. From pushing for the High Line elevated park to improving life for pedestrians, she's made New York more livable and more beautiful.

The Edmonton native was on the Design Trust for Public Space team that, with Friends of the High Line, wrote the case to save the Manhattan freight rail line, 30 feet above ground. Rejuvenated as a spacious riverside walkway, with fat wooden lounge chairs nestled beside elegant local plants, it's been the hit of the industrial district since it opened in 2009, reviving and redefining the neighbourhood.

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"It was a very small project," Ms. Weisz notes, that produced "a huge amount of change."

It's just the kind of project she and her partners at WXY Architecture like.

Ms. Weisz has lived in New York for 20 years. It was her time in Toronto attending the University of Toronto that incubated her interest in public and civic design.

"There was a huge amount of discussion about public amenities and streets and the quality of spaces," she notes. "And Jane Jacobs lived there."

With few prospects for architects in Toronto, she went to Yale University for graduate school, where she met Mark Yoes (the Y in WXY), now her business partner and husband. They moved to the Big Apple, where their firm has quietly been changing the city's face, even for tourists.

Their redesign of the tourist centre near Times Square, which opened in 2009, won accolades. It was "one of our most challenging projects," Ms. Weisz says, because it could never close. Housed in the landmark Embassy Theater, the world's first newsreel theatre, it's a mini-museum telling the story of Times Square. It's also a store that has to generate income to pay the rent.

WXY "was hard-pressed to find a fitting precedent," wrote Sharon McHugh on It partnered with Local Projects, a firm that designs interactive media installations for museums and public spaces, allowing visitors to create custom guidebooks and itineraries. "The result," writes Ms. McHugh, is "a pioneering design that reinvents the way visitors and residents will navigate the city." As one anonymous user on TripAdvisor put it, "I was surprised at how big and nice it was."

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Building in Manhattan involves so many city and state boards and committees – not to mention local stakeholders – that Ms. Weisz admits she had her doubts about the project. "But when you look back, it is so worth it," she says.

Battling for her vision of the city's Battery Park also was worth it. It's "the front porch of the city," Ms. Weisz says, yet it had been badly neglected. WXY's award-winning Battery Bosque, a garden-filled oasis, includes a spiral-shaped water feature, elliptical kiosks and a winding bench system, the River Bench.

This wooden bench, like its sister design the Zipper Bench, also invented by WXY, is made in Toronto by Solheil Mosun Ltd. Elegant and simple, the short wooden slats in the River Bench make it easier to store in winter.

The skateboard-proof Zipper bench also is used at Battery Park. It's described in architecture blogs as "two benches facing opposite directions before zipping up and melding into one surface offering the sitter a choice of two views." The sinuous benches provide a respite for commuters using the South Ferry subway station and tourists visiting the Statue of Liberty.

The next phase of WXY's Battery Park design has just begun. SeaGlass is a huge carousel, made by Show Canada Industries Inc. in Laval, Que. The seats will be fibreglass dolphins, turtles and fish, with scenes of undersea life projected on the walls, giving the park some much needed joy.

Ms. Weisz calls Mayor Michael Bloomberg "unbelievably progressive," promoting design excellence as essential to city projects, even decreeing that the best proposal is not always the cheapest.

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Hence in 2008, WXY scored a huge commission: rethinking Astor Place and Cooper Union, now primarily known as "a place you walk in the middle of the street to get to the subway," Ms. Weisz says. Their plan reduces car space and increases pedestrian arteries, changing the flow and bringing essential foot traffic into a neighbourhood, in this case the new galleries and music spaces of the Bowery.

That suits Ms. Weisz. She gestures to a nearby skyscraper saying she came to New York "not to make stuff, but to make stuff happen."

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