When splashed across newspapers, television screens and Web sites worldwide on December 18, the nine proposals for the World Trade Center site may have looked like a brave new skyscraper world—to paraphrase the headline of December 19th’s New York Daily News—or an exhibition of architectural ego as Lisa Rochon put it in the Toronto Globe and Mail. But if people make judgements about the value of the schemes based on those skyline images, both the debate on the future of the site and the notion of what architecture can accomplish will suffer. Every project offered a rich synthetic vision. In each case, a myriad of difficult issues were dealt authoritatively and often inspirationally.

None of the designs can be counted a definitive solution. But there’s plenty here to fuel real debate at last. If you can’t get to the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, then peruse www.renewnyc.com, which offers detailed presentations of each project.

The plan-in-a-void process that has been used to date generated a consensus around certain ideas, many of which the designers—intentionally or not—exploded as specious. Officials, for example, have planned to carve out a bit of real estate and hand it off as a defined memorial precinct that will be the subject of a competition. But some of the teams sought to incorporate a commemorative sensibility into the very fabric of the redevelopment. The team called United Architects fashioned their huge commercial tower around what would be visible from a memorial in the tower footprints. From this vantage the undulating bundled tubes appear as a single soaring form—arced in a protective gesture, like a giant cupped hand. A corresponding public space at the top of the building urges the viewer to contemplate the footprints.

A number of the projects offered several memorializing places, many of them high in towers. Some were skygardens which would not only be sites of mourning but would commemorate the tragedy within the context of the everyday life of Lower Manhattan. These approaches represented an explicit desire to avoid ghettoizing the memorial.

Most of the teams respected the footprints as memorial elements, as surviving families had requested. But this consensus may deserve reconsideration. To allow visitors to participate in the footprints as memorial space entails bringing them 70 feet below grade—and designers struggled to make this work.

Several teams, including Foster & Partners, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Studio Libeskind, and United Architects made especially persuasive designs for a transit hub. They succeeded in uniting the awkwardly placed separate rights-of-way for two subway lines and the PATH train (which, inconveniently, interferes with the idea of leaving the south-tower footprint inviolate). In different ways, designers brought daylight to the concourses, tied them architecturally to the tower proposals, and made the experience of entering and leaving memorable—which cannot be said of the facilities they replace or the feeble intentions displayed so far by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or the Port Authority.

One of the deepest-held assumptions about the site is that all the streets that existed prior to the trade-center construction would be restored. In fact none of the teams suggested putting back all the streets (which would be impossible should the tower footprints be reserved for a memorial). This suggests that some streets are better than others, which would not be a radical notion except where uncritical planning orthodoxy rules as it has too often in the rebuilding debate.

A number of teams showed vast raised plazas, some larger than the echoing plain that once surrounded the original towers. Prior to these designs, if anyone had said "plaza," the resounding answer would probably have been, "no way!" But each makes a much stronger case than the original. In truth, it is very difficult to make the site work without some kind of raised plaza, not only because there is a drop in grade, but because making a connection to the water—as several propose—means running the public space above West Street, the broad north-south avenue to the west of the site.