Exclusive: Three new stations will be built for Auckland's underground rail line, the City Rail Link. In this exclusive report, Simon Wilson has been looking at the new designs. He's impressed.

You cross the threshold. You arrive at the entrance to the station, step inside and find yourself in a great public space. In one of the stations, that means you've passed beneath a wall that provides a massive street frontage, symbolising the separation of Rangi and Papa. You're in a vast vaulted space now, the ceiling an "ascending series of scalloped voids", as though a giant has taken scoops from the ceiling, each one higher than the last, as you walk further in. All of them are patterned with niho taniwha, the teeth of the taniwha. The acoustics are as in a cathedral. If someone is playing a guitar by the wall over there, the sound will drop down above you in the middle of the concourse.

Welcome to Karanga-a-Hape, named for the karanga or call of Hape, who magically raced ahead of the earliest voyagers from Hawai-iki and called them in to land. The entrance to Karanga-a-Hape is a hall of sound and light; the station itself will be the third and deepest on Auckland's new underground rail line.

In another of the stations, there are multiple entrances but the same attention to the sense of a threshold. A physical sense, not simply of rocking up to catch a train, but of arriving at a place and then of stepping in. In this other station the ceiling also provides a sculptural form that defines the space, this time, with hundreds of rods, some wooden, hollowed, cut to different lengths so that you're walking beneath a shimmering, undulating blanket.

This is Horotiu, in the heart of the central city, the access point for two universities, the midtown workplaces and the arts and entertainment precinct of Aotea.

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The light will change, by day appearing as if seen through the raupo in the stream; by night, a constellation of stars - sculptural possibilities in a constant state of renewal.

From left: Adrian Petit, John Fellows, Ewan McLean and Hero Potini at the ALT Group design studio. Photo / Doug Sherring
From left: Adrian Petit, John Fellows, Ewan McLean and Hero Potini at the ALT Group design studio. Photo / Doug Sherring

The rods represent the upward growth of crops, and also a great population and an abundance of wealth. Many will be notched, the light on the notches creating a pattern that simulates the flow of water to the sea. There's a lot going on in that ceiling.

Horotiu is the valley. Waihorotiu was the stream that flowed through it, a hunting ground for catching eels and birds: Queen St today.

The physical spaces have a language and it can be decoded: ideas, history, culture made manifest in the public space of a mass transit building. Rau Hoskins of Design Tribe, one of the designers, calls it, "Somewhere to take your grandchildren and learn about this place." Buildings as repositories of knowledge: it is, after all, a perfectly normal idea in this country, with some of its buildings at least.

Horotiu is dedicated to Rongo-ma-Tane, god of kumara and cultivated foods. These stations commemorate the life that was lived, the wairua of the place. The tukutuku on the walls, like the rods on the ceiling, represent the stars and also the great wealth of people, those living here in the great cornucopia of the isthmus in days gone by and those living here now.

In the official description, it says, "The rods wax and wane in length, rippling as you move through the threshold, creating a spatial memory for the visitor and an identity for the station."

Horotiu, therefore, is a cathedral of light, a celebration of the harmony of people and place, a monument to our better natures.

The names? Currently, officially, the station names are Karangahape, Aotea and Mt Eden. But the bold new plan that's just been presented to city councillors has a different vision. It's up for debate. But I'm sticking with the new names of the proposal because I think they're good.

The cultural design will extend from the Mt Eden station forecourt through the station. Photo / Supplied
The cultural design will extend from the Mt Eden station forecourt through the station. Photo / Supplied

For all the wonder of those two large stations, it's the third, the smallest of the three, that is the most surprising. Mt Eden is currently an anonymous nothing space, a kitset suburban station, blandly conceived for functionality and security. The design for Maungawhau rethinks all that.

"The threshold begins," says the official blurb, "with an open civic space that radiates out from the station." It's a community space, a performance space, a forecourt that holds the people in it as if in the palm of a hand. As you enter the building itself you discover a space defined not by its ceiling but by a wall of carved basalt, curved in form, layered with niho taniwha, shimmering with water running down its face.

This is the volcano, tamed but never tamed, the curves derived from the cone and the pa terraces on the true volcano above. It's an immense rolling facade of stone, alive in its sense of movement, like eels writhing, like monsters of the deep. You are in the lair of a taniwha.

The long white wall in the ALT Group design studio is covered in photos, labels, descriptions. Everything's neat, organised, pinned up in patterns. Even the notes that accompany the images are all set out in regulation format. Helvetica heads, thick line above, 2cm space and a thin line beneath. They've been thinking.

Architects John Fellows and Ewan McLean at ALT design studio. Photo / Doug Sherring
Architects John Fellows and Ewan McLean at ALT design studio. Photo / Doug Sherring

Asking themselves, How good can a railway station be?

This is not a process we're used to. Not on this scale, not pursued to this depth. ALT Group is part of the CRL's Creative Design Studio, a working group set up to develop designs for the new stations of the City Rail Link: Aotea, beneath Wellesley St; Karangahape Rd, beneath K Rd; and Mt Eden, replacing the existing surface station on the Western Line.

The Creative Design Studio is run by CRL Ltd, the joint government/council-owned company in charge of getting the CRL built. Also engaged with the Creative Studio process are representatives of eight mana whenua, the architectural firm Jasmax, the Design Tribe, Grimshaw Architects and Auckland Council's arts and culture unit.

I met with Hoskins from Design Tribe, along with Dean Poole and Ben Corban from ALT, Chris Jack from Jasmax and Sarp Egene and Jo Wiggins from the council. I asked them, who designed this? They all ducked the question. It was a process, there were many minds.

But there must have been someone who said, let's carve a basalt wall in the form of spirals? They looked away, confused by the question, or feigning confusion. They did it collectively. There were many people and they did it.

Adrian Petit with one of the models at the ALT Group design studio. Photo / Doug Sherring
Adrian Petit with one of the models at the ALT Group design studio. Photo / Doug Sherring

Hoskins said that what mana whenua value is the depth of a relationship. Not just going through the "consultative phase" or "finding out what Maori think".

"This," he said, "is a true partnership in a way I haven't seen before."

They did three things. Mana whenua are in the room and always have been. It's council-organised but it's not happening inside the council. And they're doing it for the quality of the ideas: design leads the project.

To put that another way, they've gone into the architectural and arts and cultural communities and found some very bright creative people, and put them in a room to have a go at each other. Wind each other's ideas up from good to let's-see-just-how-good-we-can-be.

And what they've come out with, very intentionally, are structures made of art. Art from right here. It isn't the add-on, the thing you do when you hang a picture on this wall or plonk a sculpture in that corner. Art is in their very fabric.

What is a railway station? A place to transit through, efficiently, safely, enjoyably. That's important, but it's not the end of it. You can get a whole lot more high-falutin' about railway stations.

Railway stations are public spaces, democratising spaces. They carry the potential to make us feel good – about ourselves, who we are; about the place we're in and our place in it; about our role as citizens in the city and as a city in the world. They speak to us, of all that.

If the city is in transit itself, changing the way it works, railway stations can help. That's what Auckland is doing, or going to be doing: unclogging the roads, confronting climate change, embracing the multitude of meanings of community. Stepping over those CRL thresholds will be a part of it.

Is this fanciful? Have we lost the ability to think like this? We used to have it. In the 19th century they built great railway stations all through Europe and America: glass and wrought-iron masterpieces that celebrated the marriage of technology, art and personal aspiration for all. It wasn't done by accident.

The creators of the undergrounds of London, Moscow, Paris and elsewhere went even further, using art to create lovely public spaces specific to their location. The Paris Metro is lovely in the same way the London Tube is lovely, but they do not look like each other. What they share is a commitment to what designers call a sense of place. That's what the designers of the CRL stations have done.

In passing, the designers of the Auckland International Airport could take note. Their work, to judge by what they've done to date and the design proposals on display, lacks this purpose. Airports can be wonderful too, you know.

Wooden handrails evoke the taurapa, or stern, of a waka; also the business end of a taiaha. Tukutuku patterns are widely used. The seating is obviously seating but it doesn't look like seating you've seen before.

Not that the Creative Studio has finished off all the designs. Many of the features are placeholders: they identify the way patterns and other visual elements will be used, specify lighting and acoustics, define the large forms. Artists – master carvers and others – will be commissioned to produce the finished work.

Do they know who? I asked Poole from ALT. Oh yes. "You bring your A game, a project like this. There are a lot of people out there but the best, the ones who are above the rest, we've been developing relationships with some of them. I'm not going to name any names right now."

I asked Hoskins how they decided which stories to tell. He said there'd been a lot of discussion but mana whenua were getting pretty good at it. They decided early on not to focus on the colonial history, instead wanting to choose the right atua, or gods, to acknowledge and the right people to remember. "We wanted stories that bring us together," he said.

Choosing new names is a part of that process, and it extends to Britomart too. The Creative Studio proposes renaming it Waitemata – the elemental theme of the station is, after all, water. You didn't know that? Take another look.

The silvery colour scheme, the sense of being in a great chamber hollowed out by water, the gleaming smoothness, the invitation to look up, to the light, through the great skylights, lined with silver and light, it's as if you're looking up through water to the air beyond.

They decided, early on, there were five design concepts they might adopt to guide them, and of the five, they chose three.

One is raw sophistication. As Poole said, they don't believe in a number 8 wire approach to life, or design, or building New Zealand. Maybe we are more inventive with less, but that shouldn't condemn us to the slapdash she'll-be-right. If rawness is everywhere in this country, so too can sophistication be. The reeds echo the raupo, but the light system that plays through them is state-of-the-art.

The second concept is biophillic design. You see, they use posh words, although the idea itself isn't posh. Biophillic means inspired by nature. Poole reduced it to a sentence: "Not everything has to be a straight line."

He also pointed to antecedents. The kauri roof forms on the Auckland Art Gallery are biophillic. The sculptures of Len Lye are biophillic. "Your eye is always entertained in this country," he said. That's what they're after with these stations.

The third concept is pattern language. The teeth of the taniwha turn up often. The use of pattern is everywhere.

And the designs, though insistent and defining, are not final. These are placeholders: the final work will be done by master carvers and other experts. The framework, the concepts, are in place. The execution and the exactness are to come.

The two design concepts they say they set aside are interesting. One is playful intellectualism and the other is pragmatic inventiveness. In reality, you don't need to look very hard at this project to spot many examples of both.

I was there late last year when the mayor, Phil Goff, visited the ALT studio to get a briefing on the project. He marvelled at it. He called it "a rare opportunity" and said, enthusiastically, "this really makes a statement".

We discussed the lack of advertising, and he approved. "You wouldn't put advertising on the outside of the art gallery," he said.

He got it. Commercialism is everywhere and it has its place, but it doesn't have to be every place. "There's not much left in our city [unsullied by advertising, he meant], so let's take a moment."

Poole said to him, "It's identity expression, not just art."

What he meant was, it's not an ad-free zone because it's art, but because it's a place to explore and express who we are, and that is done, in part, through art.

No ads. In fact, the artwork shows almost no signage at all. One discreet LED service display in one image. It won't be quite like that. We will still want to know when our train is due to leave.

What will happen now? The CRLL's acting head of design and engineering, John Fellows, has said, "Light, sound, colour and texture combine from station entry to boarding the train. This successful collaboration has been translated into contract requirements for development of the CRL."

What he means is that it's part of the beauty of the designs that the art, the creative vision and all the detail that makes it so special, is woven into the fabric of the stations. That means it's woven into the tender documents. They have to be built like this.

Though councillors were briefed on the project this week, the next steps are unclear. That's because the next steps in the CRL build itself have become unclear.

City Rail Link Ltd (CRLL) was formed midway through last year, with Auckland businessman Sir Brian Roche chairing its board and Chris Meale as CEO. Meale had been the senior CRL person at Auckland Transport.

The tender process was already under way and the new board accepted expressions of interest to build the tunnels and stations from eight consortiums. It chose two of them to bid formally and was supposed to have named a winner by now.

But one of the bidders has pulled out – it's widely understood that was the consortium led by Fletcher Building. And Meale has announced his retirement, well ahead of when it was expected.

CRLL has said it's talking to the other consortiums to establish a new shortlist, but that's not so easy. Those consortiums aren't just sitting around waiting for something to do. Mostly their teams of experts will have dispersed to other projects. Besides, having been rejected once already, they may not want to resubmit, especially when there is one favoured rival still in the race.

CRLL needs a competitive process, but it's not obvious how it will construct one. Shortlisting a company that turned out not to have the ability to do the job was a bad blunder. Now the board needs to get the process moving again.

There's a lot at stake, for the efficiency of Auckland's transport system and also, now, because the city has a proposal in front of it to build something extraordinary.

The designers have shown us the quality of their work, and so have the cultural advisers and council officials. Will the business leaders on the board – and the politicians they answer to – measure up?

These stations will make this city famous. But that's not their true value. When we use them, passing through or lingering, we'll take pleasure as well as purpose from them.

It's not an idle thought, living in this city. Perhaps you're already up early enough to see the dawn break on the volcanic skyline, or your route to work takes you past a beach or through a park, into a place where beauty calls its name. Auckland's natural environment does this to us daily, when we remember to let it. These railway stations will do it too.

People will travel to see them and, travelling, will use them. They will change us. They will become us and are so singular, so much an expression of us, they could not be anyone else.

That's the true beauty of all this.