Passions and confusion hover over the former World Trade Center site like lingering smoke. An international design competition could help clear the air downtown and produce creative, worthwhile structures that advance our whole culture. Without a competition, economic pressure and cronyism may allow any building done there to devolve toward architectural mediocrity, while the world loses a chance for a new vision. However, competitions are fraught with possibilities, good and bad, and are not panaceas: They require the right framework to succeed.

The first requirement may be the hardest—an agreed-on program for the whole parcel. While cleanup efforts accelerate and leadership becomes more apparent, the simplest outlines of a consensus are emerging from the chaos. Conversations and roundtables mention a memorial to anchor the hallowed 16 acres, surrounded by housing as well as commercial and office space, with a cultural or educational component included for the long-term, civic weal. Mayor Bloomberg has informally endorsed similar programmatic goals. The ensuing months should promote debate, community discussions, and planning, resulting in a hard-nosed, realistic program for development.

The commissioning authority (yet to be defined, but bearing the stamp of governmental authority and fiscal responsibility) should approve a detailed plan, outlining infrastructure, urban, and development requirements before anything is built. Then we should refocus our gaze upward.

An international competition of architects, conducted at the highest level of oversight and participation, committed to the unvarnished, uncompromised execution of the designs for the entire site, would remove the ensuing commission from the political arena and give the city a shot at evolving greatness. The memorial, for example, calls for an emotional resonance that great artists and architects can provide if given a framework removed from cronyism or political pressure.

Wedding poetic building to utilitarian purposes may sound contradictory, but great examples already exist abroad—in Japan, for example, in the work of 2002 AIA Gold Medalist Tadao Ando, who routinely weds nature and simple materials to powerful effect. A competition could unleash an unprecedented worldwide design response and encourage an allusive, powerful work, as did the competition for the Chicago Tribune tower earlier in the 20th century (which catapulted nonwinner Eliel Saarinen into prominence) or the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Competitions can produce mixed results, particularly when finalists’ plans are allowed to be amalgamated. Political maneuvering mired the competition for the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building in Berlin, in controversy, despite the fact that the finalists’ schemes promoted the technologically advanced, stunning revitalization of a formerly reviled building. Competitions can provoke critical attacks. Earlier, the United Nations Headquarters, a Modernist icon along the East River, wedded international luminaries, including the French architect Le Corbusier and New Yorker Wallace Harrison, but provoked divided opinion on its unveiling.

No one wants the status quo. Embedded in the requirements for all structures on the site should be ideas that propel the project into this new century. Symbolically, new structures will project our image globally: The world is watching what we will build.

An international competition would reflect New York’s continued preeminence among global cities. The intent would not be to subvert the excellent current planning for lower Manhattan by New York architects and engineers, much of which they have performed voluntarily; indeed, many of them would participate, either as individual finalists or as partners in larger groups executing the ultimate solutions. Instead, a competition would impel the entire design community, New Yorkers included, toward greatness. May the best ideas win.