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Toronto opted against a uniform design for its newest subway stations, resulting in impressive buildings few will use

A bus stops at Toronto’s Pioneer Village subway station at Black Creek in Toronto.

At its best, a transit station can be a secular cathedral: a place where all sorts of people can be ennobled by the experience of space and light while hurrying with their lunch bags onto the train.

Now the city of Vaughan has just such a place – right next to the Home Outfitters on Highway 7. Vaughan Metropolitan Centre station, as it's called, is designed by the international architecture firm Grimshaw along with the Toronto office of Arup, with an integrated art installation by Paul Raff. A long oval room is pierced by a giant X of polished concrete than spans a great gap in the earth; across the curving ceiling, panels spin back kaleidoscopic reflections of the station below.

It's magnificent, enormous and totally out of place.

So, too, are most of the six new stations that opened last weekend on the TTC's Line 1. The $3.2-billion project brings the line north through Downsview and into Vaughan, territory where almost everyone gets around by car. And that's the problem with these new stations: As underground heavy rail, most of them shouldn't be here. Most are destined to be white elephants, largely empty, draining the transit agency of operating funds into the distant future.

On the plus side, some of them look great.

In designing the stations, the TTC made two important decisions. The six would not have a uniform appearance; and public art would be integrated into the architecture starting early in the design process. That's a commendable agenda, and the results are mostly positive. The TTC hired a group of hulking design offices, plus one oddball architect – Will Alsop – and two British firms, Foster + Partners and Grimshaw, which aim to deliver high design at a grand scale.

In general, the party's upstairs. The platform levels of the new stations are quite Spartan: The tunnel walls are exposed concrete with minimal decoration.

Two stations, Finch West and Pioneer Village, show the hand of Mr. Alsop, the English architect locally famous for his design of OCAD University's flying tabletop, the Sharp Centre for Design.

The new Pioneer Village station on Toronto’s newly extended subway line. The station was designed by Will Alsop, the English architect who designed OCAD University’s Sharp Centre for Design.

"Variety is the right move," Mr. Alsop argues, "and an opportunity to make points of interest in what is a boring part of Toronto." True, and Mr. Alsop is never boring. At Pioneer Village station, which sits on the north edge of the York University campus, Mr. Alsop's sensibility comes through clearly, a mix of the high-tech brand of modernism, caveman-rustic and swooshy blobs. In a word, it's weird.

The two main entrance buildings, on either side of Steeles Avenue, are distorted ovals wrapped in red enamelled panels and slabs of weathering steel, deliberately rusted to shades of orange and brown. Letters on the roof spell out the station's name in more weathering steel, while hunks of that metal protrude from the walls like defensive formations.

The bus terminal, at the end of the complex overlooks the York campus with a faceted roof (more weathering steel) that rests on a few diagonal columns. The corner of the roof sticks out far into the air. "It looks dangerous," Mr. Alsop says with pride, "but I promise it's not."

Finch West station, Mr. Alsop's other design, is less gonzo. Above ground, it consists of two boxes on either side of Finch at Jane, where passengers can connect with busy bus routes and, in a decade, the new Finch West LRT. Here Mr. Alsop has worked with the artist Bruce McLean, and the public art is literally part of the structure: It consists of the concrete columns, gawky and bristling, that support each level of the station. Otherwise the station is wrapped in vertical black-and-white stripes punctuated by windows in neon colours and, indoors, tiles of red and bright yellow. The landscape at Keele and Finch, between the 1960s modernist high-rises and a strip mall, looked particularly dull and grey. These new additions crackle and pop.

The new York University subway station in Toronto.

York University station, designed by Foster + Partners with Arup, likewise transforms its landscape for the better. Dropped into the central quadrangle of the York campus, it's a giant white boomerang that shelters an amphitheatre cut out of the ground. It has a formal grandeur and a public spirit that will add to the vitality of the York campus. Its interior is rather blandly corporate, with fine concrete columns adding some geometric spectacle.

(Speaking of blandly corporate: The remaining two stations, Highway 407 and Downsview Park, were designed by Aedas, AECOM and Parsons Brinckerhoff, and they're forgettable.)

There is a generosity and quality to York's station, as at Vaughan and Pioneer Village, that sets a good example for the city. "In Toronto, you've spent money here, and [officials at the TTC] do get criticized for that," Mr. Alsop says. "But one has to remember: The cost of the stations, against the cost of the whole line, is [very small]." Mr. Alsop's actual choice of words was unprintable, and his forceful sentiment is exactly right. When government is spending billions to create places for the public, those places should be built well.

On the other hand, they should also be built to be full. That beautiful $198-million Vaughan station was empty when I saw it this week, and will remain so; an ambitious development plan for the area led by Diamond Schmitt Architects will still only generate a peak ridership of less than 3,000 an hour in 15 years.

In fact, on my weekday ramble through the new stations, only Pioneer Village and York University had any crowds at all. The rest of the stations were populated largely with sightseeing rail fans, their cameras at the ready to take in the billion-dollar views and, hopefully, have their spirits lifted.