Pub­lic Ad­vo­cate


Azure - - CONTENTS - By Elizabeth Pagli­a­colo

Claire Weisz of New York firm WXY on how to gen­er­ate – and nur­ture – ur­ban con­nec­tiv­ity

Since Cana­dian-born Claire Weisz co-founded WXY with her hus­band, Mark Yoes, in 1998, the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary New York firm has built a rep­u­ta­tion for in­ge­niously re­viv­ing derelict pub­lic spa­ces and cre­at­ing bold new ones in its home city. Its de­signs for the un­usu­ally sculp­tural Spring Street Salt Shed and the Man­hat­tan Dis­trict 1/2/5 Garage (both with Dat­tner Ar­chi­tects) prove that even the most util­i­tar­ian mu­nic­i­pal build­ings can in­spire a sense of awe and civic pride. As a for­mer co-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the De­sign Trust for Pub­lic Space, Weisz also played a piv­otal role in bring­ing the High Line to life. But some of the ar­chi­tect’s most im­por­tant work has been in both study­ing and cre­at­ing so­cial hous­ing. Her firm’s cur­rent projects – such as the re­de­vel­op­ment of neigh­bour­hoods in­clud­ing Hunts Point, the Brook­lyn Navy Yard and Sun­set Park – all in­te­grate Mayor Bill de Bla­sio’s city-wide jobs ini­tia­tive to grow New York’s man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor while build­ing re­silient, af­ford­able mixed-use com­mu­ni­ties. Azure caught up with Weisz in her Lower Man­hat­tan stu­dio to dis­cuss the think­ing be­hind WXY’S work in hous­ing and pub­lic space, the High Line ef­fect, streetscape edit­ing and what ar­chi­tects can do in this era of po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion. In the end, she asked as many ques­tions as we did.

The con­cept of the “open city” has been much dis­cussed of late. It’s im­plied in the theme of this year’s Venice Ar­chi­tec­ture Bi­en­nale [see cor­re­spond­ing story on page 98] and the sub­ject of a new book by Richard Sen­nett. In this is­sue, we also ex­plore how cities are be­com­ing more open – or not – to refugees, young peo­ple and oth­ers. What are the qual­i­ties that, to you, make a city “open”?

The vi­brancy of a city comes from its open qual­i­ties, some of which are or­ga­ni­za­tional and po­lit­i­cal – [when] peo­ple feel that they have a say, that they can protest is­sues in pub­lic space, that they have choices over which li­brary or café to go to. But it is also about good pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture, both in terms of new de­vel­op­ments and preser­va­tion. Cities are much more suc­cess­ful when they’ve cre­ated green­ways, bike­ways and busways that cut through var­i­ous neigh­bour­hoods while also bring­ing neigh­bour­hoods to­gether. At­lanta’s Belt­line is a re­ally good ex­am­ple of that. You see skate­board­ers meet­ing some­one walk­ing home af­ter work, meet­ing some­one push­ing a stroller, meet­ing some­one who’s drink­ing a beer at a restau­rant – all in a place where, his­tor­i­cally, freight trains once op­er­ated.

Given how cost-pro­hib­i­tive it has be­come to live there, how open a city is New York?

One of the rea­sons peo­ple still move to New York de­spite its ex­pense is the ac­cess to op­por­tu­nity. One of my favourite mo­ments in New York is the Mid­night Mo­ment, when an artist takes over most of the screens in Times Square for 10 min­utes, doc­u­ment­ing life and ac­tiv­ity there at that time. I think that kind of idea is, like the song about mak­ing it in New York, trans­lated in a thou­sand dif­fer­ent ways. Cities that have this level of open ac­cess to re­sources and ameni­ties through pub­lic space are cities whose sys­tems work better be­cause of that trans­parency.

You were an early ad­vo­cate for New York’s High Line, an ex­am­ple of great ur­ban de­sign now be­ing repli­cated in neigh­bour­hoods around the world. But it’s also a project that has been crit­i­cized for in­creas­ing ad­ja­cent prop­erty val­ues.

There’s a phe­nom­e­non that’s just as true of sub­ways as of open space: any im­prove­ment in in­fra­struc­ture – and I re­gard pub­lic space as a kind of in­fra­struc­ture – means that hous­ing is go­ing to be less af­ford­able near an

as­set than away from it. So we have to rec­og­nize that and sup­port af­ford­able-hous­ing se­cu­rity in par­tic­u­lar. By the time the High Line was un­der con­struc­tion, gal­leries had al­ready changed West Chelsea. So while there may have been less direct res­i­den­tial dis­place­ment, prop­erty val­ues have risen, putting pres­sure on ad­ja­cent neigh­bour­hoods. In hind­sight, the value was there, even though no one be­lieved it at the time, so the chance to re­tain more legacy uses, sub­si­dize more af­ford­able hous­ing and pay for the up­keep of pub­lic space was lost.

Last year, WXY’S re­build of the Rock­aways board­walk in Queens, a project com­mis­sioned in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Sandy, was com­pleted. As in­fra­struc­ture, it would seem to have some affini­ties with the High Line.

Each com­mu­nity to­tally ben­e­fits from the idea of a High Line, a con­nected pedes­trian prom­e­nade that gives you vis­ual ac­cess to your con­text, your place. The Rock­aways had al­ways ex­isted, like the High Line did, ex­cept the Rock­aways had their own unique qual­i­ties by be­ing on a beach. But they are also ur­ban, so it was im­por­tant to de­sign for that area in a way that played up its con­text. The project has re­sulted in higher health met­rics, com­mu­nity sta­bil­ity, co­he­sion. Peo­ple are com­ing back to the beach. In gen­eral, in­vest­ment in con­nec­tiv­ity is in­vest­ment in neigh­bour­hood re­siliency. How can pub­lic space be cre­ated with­out ba­si­cally telling peo­ple that they can’t af­ford to live in their neigh­bour­hood any­more? Lim­it­ing op­por­tu­nity is not the an­swer to gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. But what you don’t want is dis­place­ment. When you im­prove con­di­tions, you have to make sure that there’s hous­ing pol­icy in place to en­sure peo­ple can stay in their neigh­bour­hood.

You’re work­ing [with Body Law­son As­so­ciates] on the Hunts Point de­vel­op­ment in the South Bronx, where a for­mer ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­tre is be­ing reimag­ined as a mul­ti­fac­eted live-work cam­pus known as the Penin­sula. With that project, af­ford­able hous­ing and ac­cess to jobs go hand in hand. Is this a new model for suc­cess­ful hous­ing de­vel­op­ments?

Hunts Point is a de­vel­op­ment in three phases, with five build­ings and a new pub­lic realm, in one of the re­gion’s poor­est neigh­bour­hoods. The model there is re­ally a re­boot of an old ur­ban model, in which peo­ple lived above stores or down the street from a fac­tory. These days, how do you make a de­vel­op­ment where work op­por­tu­ni­ties are in­te­grated? How do you recre­ate a mixed-use city? Hunts Point is home to the largest food ter­mi­nal in the world, and those fish, meat and pro­duce mar­kets are ba­si­cally the life­line of New York. The first phase of build­ings will be 100-per-cent af­ford­able hous­ing. At the build­ings’ ground level are con­ven­tional job and cul­ture-mak­ers – arts and dance com­pa­nies, pre-k nurs­ery schools, health clin­ics and gro­cery stores – but also a light-in­dus­trial food pro­duc­tion [cen­tre] and a film and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity that add dif­fer­ent kinds of jobs to the mix.

You had a role in de­vel­op­ing Hunts Point from the out­set. Is plan­ning as well as de­sign be­com­ing a spe­cialty of your firm? And how can this be­come a model that more ar­chi­tects take on?

Tra­di­tion­ally, ar­chi­tects have been on the sup­ply side, work­ing on some­thing that’s al­ready planned. But by hav­ing an of­fice that does both plan­ning and de­sign, you can also work on the de­mand side of the equa­tion. You’re work­ing on projects that we used to call master plans, but that I now call frame­work plans, as in set­ting up a frame­work for more of the right kinds of com­mis­sions and op­por­tu­ni­ties to hap­pen. You’re cre­at­ing the right kind of de­mand for pub­lic space, for open­ness, for better eco­nomic sit­u­a­tions for peo­ple, for more nat­u­ral habi­tats.

WXY re­cently com­pleted two more pub­lic-space projects in New York – the re­design of As­tor Place and the West 215th Step Street re­con­struc­tion. How are they improving the city’s fab­ric?

As­tor Place has made a new kind of plaza in what was the mid­dle of the street, and added green in­fra­struc­ture to a place that was all pave­ment. And then we made more space around Cooper Union, NYU and a bunch of dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ties and high schools – an un­of­fi­cial cam­pus that uses As­tor Place as its front door. Now you can ac­tu­ally walk and see views you didn’t see be­fore. In a lot of ways, it’s just like hav­ing clothes that fit better. It was like edit­ing the ex­ist­ing streetscape. West 215th was an ex­ist­ing step street that was fall­ing apart. In re­build­ing it, we used stairs as seat­ing, turn­ing it a lit­tle bit into Mont­martre, where you have cob­ble and trees at the cen­tre. It’s a hard­scap­ing thing, the way in Mont­martre you’d see the cob­ble streets go­ing straight up. There’s a huge amount of po­ten­tial in cut-throughs, lanes and other in-be­tween spa­ces.

Given the po­lar­iza­tion we’re see­ing in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, how cru­cial is the cre­ation and main­te­nance of vi­brant pub­lic spa­ces?

One wants to live in a world where peo­ple talk to other peo­ple and see that as some­thing they re­mem­ber pos­i­tively. There­fore, pub­lic tran­sit, festivals, pa­rades, con­certs, beau­ti­ful parks, great bike paths and not liv­ing in fear re­ally work hand in hand. In times of stress, you re­ally see the im­por­tance of places of ex­change, which gen­er­ally are out­side of doors that can be locked. Peo­ple ask me, “Aren’t malls pub­lic spa­ces?” Well, they are spa­ces the pub­lic can go to, but any space where some­one can lock the doors isn’t nec­es­sar­ily one ev­ery­one feels wel­come to. In fact, this is the dis­cus­sion peo­ple are start­ing to have about places like Star­bucks sub­sti­tut­ing for li­braries. With a li­brary, you know what the hours are, you know you can al­ways use the pub­lic wash­room, you can even in many cases have cof­fee and so­cial­ize. But there aren’t as many of them as there used to be.

You have said that ar­chi­tects are the best ad­vo­cates for pub­lic space. Why?

Ar­chi­tects are some­times only con­cerned with their own projects. But any project that has an out­side can con­trib­ute to pub­lic space. Even if you’re a ho­tel de­signer, when you de­sign a lobby, you’re con­tribut­ing. So that’s why I say ar­chi­tects are the best ad­vo­cates – be­cause they’re the ones hold­ing the pen­cil. They don’t even have to at­tend a meet­ing. An ar­chi­tect who’s de­sign­ing some­thing is an ad­vo­cate for pub­lic space – if it’s part of how he or she thinks.

BE­LOW: In­spired by Mont­martre in Paris, WXY’S re­design of the West 215th Step Street in Man­hat­tan turned a blight into a boon.

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