What if you got what you asked for? That happened when architecture and planning leaped to the forefront of media attention late last year. In a single, widely publicized unveiling at the Winter Garden of Manhattan’s World Financial Center on December 18, 2002, seven teams presented nine schemes for the redevelopment of the former World Trade Center site, an intellectual exercise capturing headlines and air time around the globe. What did we get?

Regardless of the turn of events, the value of the architects’ contributions cannot be overstated. Thanks to their commitment, suddenly we all had a ray of hope for a situation that has been hotly debated, politically compromised, and heading rapidly toward the dustbin of mediocrity. The city and the nation deserved better than business as usual. Finally, we have had a glimpse of a positive direction, though significant work lies ahead.

These solutions face strong hurdles. As Hugh Hardy, FAIA, coordinator of New York New Visions Plan Review Task Force, pointed out at a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) meeting, “Without a realistic program and method for development, and with the lack of leadership from above, the schemes present a quandary.” The crux of the problem remains: No real client exists for the largely theoretical program and the commissioning institutions are ad hoc—subject to the governor’s will or to the development community’s parsimony. Will the projects ultimately belong to the public realm or to commercial interests? What will the roles become for leaseholder Larry Silverstein or mall owner Westfield America, not to mention the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey? How can visionary plans overlay the demands for transit, which has prompted the Port Authority to hurtle forward, building below grade? The powers-that-be are calling for solutions, when the best answers benefit from a longer view.

Several observations seem relevant. The architects engaged in these plans followed the rules, with bold assertions. While the LMDC allowed modification and reduction of its original demands to return all 11 million square feet of office space to the site, the remaining sheer bulk still produced gargantuan responses by each team. The plazas are broad; the buildings, sky-high. The proposed scale is daunting, a fact clearly evident in the images of plans by Foster and Partners, or United Architects, or Richard Meier’s team, where jumbo structures are counterposed against the skyline. By analogy, the massive towers arrayed along New York’s Sixth Avenue, including the McGraw-Hill building, typically contain 50 floors; more than one World Trade Center scheme doubles that height.

By the look of it, the future of the tall building seems assured. Four schemes propose the tallest buildings in the world. While one of the original towers reached 1,368 feet, Daniel Libeskind’s garden-tower hits 1,776 feet, and one of the THINK group’s schemes exceeds 2,000 feet. The questionable validity of such extremes is pointed out by the renderings, in which height and bulk loom against the existing urban fabric. The SOM group’s cluster, by contrast—limited to 60 stories (940 feet)—elbows itself into the thick of Lower Manhattan without lording it over the skyline. Somehow, the tallest metaphor smacks of hubris.

Some of the work seems reactive, a term that demands clarification: The events surrounding September 11 had an unavoidable influence on the schemes. For that reason, Foster’s office replicated twin towers, making them nevertheless the “tallest, strongest, safest” towers in the world. This urge to rebuild, and to rethink, dual towers arising from the ashes of the destroyed World Trade Center seems inevitable, but demands reflection. Would we have built twin structures otherwise? Should they figure in the shape of the emerging city, or should we seek new forms for a new century?

While twin towers incorporated memorial expression in their form, Daniel Libeskind suggested retaining a significant percentage of the foundation plane, 70 feet below grade, as a memorial plaza. And though it would present complicated structural demands, the slurry wall holds memory authentically and poetically, without resorting to sentimentality. Libeskind’s proposal, which captured critical admiration, deserves consideration and selection for the potent way in which it responds both to history and to the future. The asymmetrical, modulated skyline he designed reinforces and adds new forms to Manhattan without overpowering the city. Before leaping to acceptance, however, as in all of the proposals, individual elements deserve analysis, including the garden-laced sky tower, an attractive symbolic gesture but of questionable utility, or the forms of the Pennzoil-like office towers themselves.

Potent imagery from all of the proposals lingers, including THINK’s third scheme’s homage to the Eiffel Tower—a romantic, open armature reaching skyward. United Architects produced dizzying views of a delirious new Manhattan. The notion of an interlinked “city in the sky,” in which both upper and subterranean floors of tall buildings house a public realm, with gardens and cafés, harks back to other urban visions (good and bad), including those of Antonio Sant’Elia’s citta nuova, or even John Portman’s. The effects for the streetscape, however, remain problematic.

Although it has largely been overlooked in critical discussion thus far, several teams devoted significant energy to sustainability, the larger subject of the current issue of this magazine. Foster and Partners produced a techno-marvel, dual-skinned tower, based in part on its work with the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, Germany, with interior gardens and operable window walls. THINK suggested harvesting high-level winds through turbines; Richard Meier’s team captured sunlight through photosensitive glazing, which glows at night. Each idea demands scrutiny beyond the schematic.

At the record forum on January 7, architect Bernard Tschumi suggested that collage had been a potent 20th-century force but was unlikely to succeed unless done by a Braque or Picasso. However, by the publication date of this editorial, the LMDC and the Port Authority may have made their selections and tried to incorporate certain ideas into an urban plan. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to graft idea onto idea, scheme onto scheme. Short of a miracle, the result would be compromised. A better solution would be, after studying them all, to make a single choice (at this writing, the Libeskind scheme seems the most promising), allowing this one team to incorporate the best ideas into its own master plan, forging the design for a memorial plaza and the attendant public spaces and setting guidelines for subsequent development of commercial space, including office towers—a strong, clear shot at excellence for the years, and the unfolding ideas, to come.