One primary lesson from the design studio comes hard for the diligent: The best plans do not always follow the rules. Good students have been taught since kindergarten to color within the lines and to turn in assignments on time; when the brilliant designer in any class saunters in with a scheme that blows the room away, yet violates the program, debate quells. Once a great plan appears, every juror or fellow student can acknowledge the power of the idea, no matter how errant the method: Great ideas attract us with their own energy.

Unlike the design studio, which results in a mere grade, the stakes for the design of the World Trade Center site in New York are enormous and of lasting consequence. Some of the issues may be analogous, however; in particular, how programmatic expectations affect all planning. The designers of the proposed master plan had been tasked by their client, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), with a riddle that loomed like the former twin towers: produce six independent schemes, each of which must return 11 million square feet of office space to downtown Manhattan, retain much of the actual site as memorial, interweave its architecture with massive infrastructure, and create a new vision for the city under intense public and political scrutiny—all within eight weeks.

Then the client weakened the architects’ already tenuous position by inserting four schemes by others among the six, apparently hoping that no one would notice. We all found out. The results came to light at a press conference on July 16, followed by a firestorm of critical analysis in the media. By adhering to the client’s demands, all six posited related solutions, arraying tall towers in a perimeter around an open urban space, with variation apparent in memorial sites, in street configuration, and in designation of certain structures as signature buildings. Keeping to the rules meant moving the chess pieces around, with little opportunity for modulation or change.

The Port Authority and LMDC called for public response on July 20. More than 4,000 representatives, who convened at an excellent town meeting called “Listening to the City,” held at New York’s Javits Center, answered loud and clear. Moving among the 500 tables set up for discussion and response, this mega-jury, which included ordinary folk, planners, firemen, and survivors, spoke with one voice. Time after time, in words varying in eloquence yet consistent in intent, they connected with their fellow respondents to label the schemes underwhelming. They decried the rush to building, calling on the powers that be to change the ground rules by paying off the current leaseholder and reducing demands for office space. In addition, they suggested interlacing the district with housing to achieve a more vibrant city. The moment provided enlightened democratic engagement at the highest level.

Astonishingly, the public talked about design. Their voices varied as they waded into unfamiliar waters, but it was clear that they expected more; as reported in the press, the phrase was for a “more ambitious” plan. One table cited the “great minds” present in the city and suggested they be solicited for plans. Another mentioned the global implications of the events of September 11 and supported, as we have, an international competition to achieve a world-class result. The voting of the entire public body is reported in our news section and on our Web site, which offers a detailed reprise of the responses.

Great architecture rarely occurs by plebiscite. Master planning and architectural design result in different products and may demand different methods. Traditionally, greater public participation in the former case lays the groundwork for the quieter, more individualistic pursuit of the latter. To its credit, the Port Authority and LMDC stated that they had heard the concerns and would alter the program. However, the world awaits the brilliant scheme from the student who steps outside the prescribed bounds and persuades through the power of an idea. To date, we have been coloring within the lines.