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.

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.