The skyscrapers attracted the most initial attention: for their form, their size, and their height. All overturn much conventional real-estate wisdom. The bundled-tube forms and triangulated façade treatments, for example, express methods for safely structuring tall buildings that preceded 9/11, but have rapidly advanced since.

In embracing skygardens and other forms of public space high above the ground, the teams lent their towers a civic quality that today’s cookie-cutter office-building norm utterly lacks. Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Roger Duffy offered the interlocking gardens crowning his consortium’s nine towers as "iconic expression of the leveraging of commercial development for public benefit." Several schemes proposed naturally ventilated facades and other carbon-reducing techniques—none of which are anymore beyond European norms but are radically advanced by hidebound American standards. The extraordinary confidence expressed in the design of Foster & Partners’ tower comes out of the fact that little about it is actually new. Much of its advanced technology and inventive structure has been tested in earlier buildings done by the firm—none, sadly, in the U.S.

Can any of these ideas form the kernel of a rebuilt World Trade Center? Not according to the real-estate community. "You can’t build that stuff," one unnamed developer told New York Times writer Charles Bagli in a December 19 story. Douglas Durst, a prominent developer, said the result "will resemble the conceptual plan only in spirit." Durst is historically correct. He threw out guidelines that supposedly bound sites he developed in New York’s Times Square. (They were prepared in part by Stanton Eckstut, who has been designated by the Port Authority to make an urban-design layout out of the work presented December 18.)

But the real-estate community has offered no leadership to date in reviving lower Manhattan. It has succeeded in persuading government agencies to generously underwrite rent and tax incentives intended to lure tenants downtown. These would have the incidental effect of lining developers pockets, only so far they have largely failed. The industry has not rallied around the development of a strong business case for tenants to locate downtown, and seems unwilling to consider whether any of the seven architect’s tall-building schemes might offer templates for 21st-century tenants.

But the real-estate industry path-of-least-resistance rebuilding process will prevail without some political leadership, which has been to date sorely lacking. Governor Pataki has been reluctant to use his power to get turf-obsessed agencies to work together. Instead of uniting competing interests, Mayor Bloomberg belatedly offered his own "plan" for lower Manhattan on December 12. It freely lifted elements of work Peterson/Littenburg did for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, for example. The architects have gone far beyond the charge given them in September (and far beyond the tiny allotted fees). They’ve supplied ideas and inspiration in abundance. How meaningful and inspiring the redevelopment can be now depends on what level of quality, public commitment, and public investment officials are willing to support.