train station art – urban values, scale and what we can learn from grafitti

There are a few layers of context to the art works in this post so I’m going to start at the top and work down, from the architecture, the commissioned artworks, through to the details of installation, to consideration of the integration of art into public architecture, the success of this, and how a sense of value can be read from the details.

The setting for this example is the redeveloped train station in New Lynn’s transport hub.

New Lynn train station and bus exchange (a rough collage)

New Lynn train station from the bus depot

The railway lines were dropped below ground level in a trench passing under the station. This significant work of new infrastructure was done to improve the function and feel of public space in the New Lynn town centre. It also creates an interesting new spatial experience. We don’t go underground much in New Zealand.

the lowered platform showing textured wall tiles

the lowered platform showing textured wall tiles

There are several art works associated with the station thanks to the previous council’s active engagement with artists on all civic projects as part of the Eco-City model. The art relates to the local context of the rail line, the historical ceramic industry of the area and the cultural diversity of the present. Please see the notes at the end for more on artists and artworks.

examples of art works around the station

examples of art works around the station

What I really want to talk about is not the meaning in the artworks, nor the architecture, but the way the art is presented. How presentation within a space speaks to the intended function of that space, or how someone using the space as intended, e.g. to catch a train, might perceive the work. How a space, or an artwork is valued is evident from the ‘finish’ of an installation. For example the train station itself is architecturally striking, which I view as a good sign for the future of transit in Auckland. It shows we value and want to draw attention to transport choice and the role it plays in strong urban centres. However I feel two of the artworks, in the way they are installed in the station, counter this message of urban values in small but significant ways.

Within the new train station, along the walls on either side of the platform are some amazingly polished contoured tiles, inspired by the surrounding clay landscape. The textured panels stop dead at the walkable edge of the platform:

the end of the art wall

the end of the art wall

As you can see the tiles do not extend to the end of the trench, they do not taper off to a respectable distance past the edge of the raised platform, they stop short of the full treatment.

The experience of the work is marred by the very abrupt, rough-as-guts ‘unfinished’ concrete walls that dominate the rest of the trench. Essentially passengers on the train are thrown back out into the boring, messy corridors that are stereotypical of train journeys the moment the train leaves the platform. If this were a lesser project this architectural retreat to the status quo would be less worrisome, but it is a significant building and this wall is so ugly in its complete lack of concern, it is begging for some adornment. Some local graffiti artist or tagger is bound to be tempted despite the danger of the trains.

Ideally the whole trench would be completed with the tiles, showing respect for the whole experience and the artist. Local residents who have to navigate around the long trench barriers at ground level are also affected. A compromise could see a playful riff on the design expanding out along the trench, reaching the eyes of pedestrians and passengers alike. Even simple attention to texture would be preferable to total disregard.

Passengers who must ride out the rest of the trench are given the implicit message that once they are on the train they are not worth the grandeur of the station itself. Not only that, this trench gives the message that the view of passengers is not worth considering at all. Therefore travel by train from New Lynn is valued less than it first appears.

Lace pattern close up

Lace pattern close up

the art disappears into reflections when walking

the art disappears into reflections when walking

The second issue I want to bring up is related to the lace designs that have been applied to the glass panels atop the barrier that surrounds the trench. While a lot of amazing work has gone into the lace designs themselves, pulling in ideas from textiles of four local cultures, I felt these designs could be better placed and sized.

In transport projects the moving audience, experiencing art in space while walking, sitting, at speed or resting in stillness. This leads to shifting scale and perspectives of the artwork. Vital angles can be easily overlooked, sometimes marring the overall effect of the artwork. In this case I felt the images suffered from being placed at such a height that the background view interfered, blocking out light to what is like a piece of stained glass. When lit well they can be glorious, but a muddled view makes for a frustrating experience. I had to duck down to take photos that do the works justice. I wouldn’t be surprised if the shortest of little kids find them magical.

When walking around the top of the trench to come or go from the station, one naturally faces in the direction they are walking, at which point the lace designs disappear into reflections of cars and traffic lights. Seeing as the entire station is surrounded by roads the station might just become a mirage of a traffic jam to a pedestrian who gets close enough.

Down stairs on the platform the patterns are well lit against even a cloudy day. Perhaps this is what the design team had in mind – a colourful edge to the raised sky. But if that is the case why are the final designs so small? Why not make the image large enough for the detail of the work to be appreciated from the platform, up to 10m away?

lace images as seen from the platform

lace images as seen from the platform

It seems unsatisfactory to view these coloured lace artworks as part of one’s natural use of the space, as a pedestrian or a train user. There are clashes of scale, distance and refraction angles. It seems obvious that more testing of the designs and materials on site could have led to a truly glorious display of glowing and intricate sunlit colour, rather than the existing occasional glimpse of interrupted lines and distant marks. The artist may not have been after glory but I’d be very surprised if she intended for all her intricate work to by out shone by reflections of traffic lights.

Neither of these two works has been given the chance to resonate within the place they have been composed for. A disservice to us all. I suspect we could learn quite a lot from the graffiti right next door in terms of appropriate size and detail for this audience.

I am being nit-picky because this is an urban development project that is aiming for a high standard. It is an example to be shown to other local centres across Auckland, to demonstrate just how attractive good urban form can be. Urban form that makes choosing and swapping between sustainable modes of transport easy and desirable, urban form that celebrates the creative, entrepreneurial possibilities inherent in cities, and makes urban living an attractive option compared to sprawling suburbia. In many respects this is about much more than this one train station, and the art attached. It is about expressing values for a shared urban future in New Zealand. We haven’t got it right yet.

for all that, the stained glass effect is still beautiful.

for all that, the stained glass effect is still beautiful.

This is my third post about New Lynn, a developing local centre in West Auckland.

Artwork and artists at the New Lynn Station: (For more try New Lynn Matters Newsletter).

Louise Purvis, sculptor who designed the highly textured concrete panels that line the rail trench. The pattern is reminiscent of topographical maps, or ripples in sand. It is a nod to the clay soil landscape that drew manufactures to the area and that was dug out of the trench and still lies on the other side of the trench wall.

Textile artist Miranda Brown designed lace like motifs for the glass panelling at street level overlooking the station platform below. Each motif is inspired by textiles of one of the four main cultural origins of the local residents: Maori, Pakeha, Pacific Island and Asian communities.

Ceramic artist John Parker, who created a large tile mosaic of the iconic Crown Lynn swans with in the station.

Neil Miller has built tall, hustling ‘railway signals’, spinning colour installed like locating flags for the less obvious outdoor entrance to the platform.

photos of the new transport interchange structures on opening day.

Discussion (6) ¬

  1. New Lynn has bad juju. I wouldn’t be surprised if this has blighted the construction of the station.
    They should have interred a human sacrifice under the concrete train platform, alive, to appease the angry spirits.

  2. Rose, I wouldn’t go that far!
    I think is a common issue – art and engineering don’t understand each other, and the translation between one and the other gets a little skewed.

    Addition: Here is a link to pictures of the Crown Lynn Swan wall by John Parker, which I did not include in the post. John’s work at New Lynn


  3. I think this is a well written piece. As a train user I have noticed that the Trench Art is depressingly short and seems to give the sense of being unfinished. I hadn’t noticed the glass work though but that is pretty cool and I’ll keep an eye out for it when I’m in the area again.

    And Rose I agree that New Lynn has bad juju. I once saw a bunch kids showing off some pretty big knives to one another in the bus stop there a couple of years ago. West Auckland is awesome.

  4. Hi Rose, Good piece. All that you say is correct. However what you may not realise is that the issues you speak off were considered very carefully during the design process. The problem= money. WCC invested huge money into this project to get the results that you see. I pushed hard for extending the artworks in the trench but we simply did not have the funds. What we do have is far beeter than what KIWI Rail would have done without WCC input.

    On thwe lace artwork. We did what we had budget for in the initial build and since have been planning additional works. It is in the pipeline, watch that space. These works were focused on the pedestrian not the rail trench users. As I say, watch that space.

  5. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog, and thanks for your hard work on this project, I appreciate it’s difficult ground. My last paragraph about being critical comes from a deep respect for what is being attempted in New Lynn, New Zealand’s first example of TOD as part of Smart Growth.

    I’d love to hear more about the processes you were involved in. The use of art to promote transport is the basis of my masters research, and anecdotes from examples (including funding issues) are always of interest to me.
    (A side note: One thing that always comes to mind for me with these limitations is the untapped resource of artists and volunteers in the community. People who would be happy to beautify their turf if only civilians were allowed/invited.)

    It’s good to hear there is more planned for the New Lynn area, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it : )

  6. Hi,
    I know this is old but I do know that they ran out of budget to finish the concrete panels for the rest of the tunnel – it’s never the designers, it’s always the damn skimpy budget!

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