The second year of machinations at the World Trade Center site has gotten off to a vigorous start. Digging out of the public-relations hole it created for itself last summer with the release of six profoundly uninspired plans by four handpicked local firms, in September the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) announced the selection of six mostly glamorous design teams from among “406 submissions received from every continent except Antarctica.” Another, a handpicked local holdover from round one, was immediately added hors concours. The seven teams–six empowered by a jury and one by bureaucratic fiat–were then charged with creating “innovative designs” out of the appallingly complex skein of planning dilemmas at Ground Zero–What to build? Where to remember? How to profit?–and they were asked to do so using nearly the same overstuffed, lease-mandated quotas that had stymied the designers in the previous attempt: up to 10 million square feet of office space (graciously reduced from 11 million), up to 1 million square feet for an “international conference center and hotel” (an item found on no “Listening to the City” wish list) and between 600,000 and 1 million square feet of “respectful” retail space (quietly and substantially increased from last summer’s totals). And, as before, all of this bounty is to be packed into a hemmed-in and hollowed-out urban site of only sixteen acres, two of which, the tower footprints, are now by official decree hallowed ground.

A working program reflecting these enduring assumptions–plus a memorial, a memorial museum, “a 21st century train station,” a “distinctive skyline,” a “new street grid,” a “grand promenade” on West Street–was released on October 11 by the LMDC. Then the process went into chambers, where by all accounts that agency kept close tabs on the developing visions; but the Port Authority–still, alas, the owner of the site–emerged as the primary client, the party to impress. As planned, the elections came and went with progress implied; no incumbent was dogged by charges of inaction or exposed to “vision thing” risk. But in the weeks after, the papers began to fill with a steady pulse of official and leaked enthusiasms intended to raise hopes that an inventive spatial solution was near. At last, we were told, the cavalry–“great minds”–had come.

On December 18 the public was treated to an event that was an apt finale to that hype. As morning broke over lower Manhattan one year, three months and one week after it was attacked, the skylit, marble-veneered, palm-tree-canopied volume of the resurrected World Financial Center Winter Garden rang with the din of an assembling media scrum. In front of a well-guarded stage, behind a barrier of retractable ticket-line ribbons, a phalanx of miniature heroic futures waited, each world’s-tallest totem of renewal suggesting its potency by the size of the tented peak it pushed up in a cloaking white sheet. Every vantage on those proud models not obstructed by the restored grove was taken up by rows of VIP folding chairs and banks of network cameras. Reporters eddied around the margins and complained that there was no coffee. This is how the city heals.

At 10 am sharp, in what may stand forever as the high-water mark of architecture’s popular presence in American culture, the unveilings began, covered live on cable and local public radio, where a prominent design critic was asked to provide color commentary as if it were the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. First came Daniel Libeskind, brilliant and endearingly impish, unspooling a riff so affecting that few then or since questioned the shattered crystal city he proposed, ornamented with captured cosmic rays and puzzle-locked Tetris chits. Below a needle spire stacked with gardens (an “affirmation of life”), a “museum of the event” would hang provocatively over the concrete walls and bedrock floor of the World Trade Center’s deep “bathtub” foundation. Resisting the convenient, circumscribed sanctity of the tower footprints, Libeskind left that entire relic raw. Norman Foster followed with something for everyone: a welcome humanist pitch (“Architecture is about needs: the needs of people”), a nuanced but normative memorial park around very empty footprints, and “twinned” glass towers “which kiss and touch and become one.” The green engineering of those towers, their appeal to the build-’em-as-they-were crowd, the canny proposal to create private mourning zones for the victims’ families and the comfortable feasibility of the whole added up to a rhetorical grand slam.

Lord Foster was a hard act to follow. Perhaps that’s why Richard Meier kicked off his team’s presentation with shtick: “We’re the New York team. Some say we’re the Dream Team. But that’s not true. We’re very real. And we’re presenting a project that we’d like to think is also very real.” That qualification told the whole story. The work Meier produced with three New York-scene rivals–Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl and Charles Gwathmey–bordered on the embarrassing: five inscrutable towers (each topping out at a cute 1,111 feet) tied by fat skyways into an imposing waffle that rears over twelve acres of windswept déjà vu. Though they got a pass from most design critics–Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times actually published his first defense before the plan was released–a studio critic would have to give the Dream Team an incomplete. The poverty of the design, a blank onto which any idea could be projected, gave heft to the murmurs that this ballyhooed collaboration had not gone smoothly. THINK, another bizarre star-cluster, brought together (among others) David Rockwell, the master of themed good-times architecture; Shigeru Ban, a genuine prophet of an ethical, bare-bones alternative; and Frederic Schwartz, whose career in the trenches was interrupted last year when his idea for decking West Street caught fire. This busy coalition covered its bets with three schemes: “World Cultural Center,” twin latticework towers hung with vertiginous memorial platforms and vague not-for-profit spaces in playful blobs; “Sky Park,” a plan for three towers looking down on the namesake plateau; and “Great Hall,” which imagined a site-spanning thirty-story-high glass room that, despite the liberal use of the word “quiet” in architect Raphael Vinoly’s presentation, looked like nothing less than a louder, loftier version of the press-choked Winter Garden itself. A third supergroup, United Architects, included jet-set mavericks from London (Foreign Office Architects), Los Angeles (Greg Lynn FORM) and Amsterdam (Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio, slumming here with their less accomplished contemporaries). Using presentation materials developed with the design and branding firm Imaginary Forces (the wizards behind the Harry Potter title sequences), Lynn sold his team as next-generation utopians. But beyond the hip bits and bytes, the team’s cranky wall of canted, conjoined, triangle-faceted towers–though full of insurgent pluck–was a commonplace of New York futures past: a street-spanning megastructure, a “City in the Sky.” Clearly it’s time for a fresh take on the new.

The insiders presented last. Peterson/ Littenberg, the firm that skirted the jury via a consulting contract with the LMDC, was the furthest from the stylistic and urbanistic mean. Where others sought to bring life across the highway to Battery Park City, that still-sterile annex to Manhattan’s Lower West Side, these urban designers in the reactionary mode sought to impose an identical impotence on Ground Zero: awkward towers jammed into a cut-rate Rockefeller Center, walled gardens and cozy pocket parks, the familiar easy streets of ersatz urbanism. This plan would create a wonderful beginner’s pedestrian district for any American city that needs one, but New Yorkers expect much more from a street than what Peterson/Littenberg seem prepared to give. Apart from the self-defeating New York Four, it was the weakest of the “innovative designs” and, because of what it revealed of official taste, the most ominous. At the very end came venerable Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, forged in World War II as the house designers of the military-industrial complex. They are all over Ground Zero and have been from day one. David Childs, head of the New York office, is architect to the World Trade Center’s commercial leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, and the designer of Silverstein’s rapidly reborn and relentlessly anodyne Seven World Trade Center tower. Marilyn Jordan Taylor, long an articulate voice in the city’s public-space debate, was active in the formation of New York New Visions, the design-world pressure group. In front of the cameras that day, a third partner, Roger Duffy, proposed a phased array of nimble, crooked towers, replacing the public-ground plane acre for acre with limited-access plazas in the sky. He took only six of the twenty minutes allotted to present a rather complex and radical idea. Does he know he shouldn’t be wasting his time with hothouse flowers? Should we?

A Ground-Zero-Sum Game

As this spectacle played out in the Winter Garden’s center ring, office workers–many likely survivors of the generative event–looked on. They stood above at the mezzanine rails or sat on the grand stair that was built to take traffic from the pedestrian bridge, now scrap, that served so well as an escape route before it was taken out by the towers’ collapse. Several of the hopeful teams had hired public relations firms to increase their real-time traction in the public imagination. So under the witnesses’ mordant gaze, those inevitable lubricants of contemporary enterprise, smiling flacks, did their thing. Some of them–inexplicably–were telling all who would listen, “Our team should win.”

Win? As things stand, there will be no winner in the rebuilding game, not one worth rooting for, anyway; a compromised process can only result in compromise. And there could have been no winner that day: This was bread and circus for the chattering class, smoke and mirrors for the viewers back home, a feint by the development powers to protect their left flank from accusations of philistinism, a dodge to buy time while they get their publicly financed house in order for a final push at that fearsome fait accompli: rebuilding on the World Trade Center site every last leasable square foot that the market will bear and society will tolerate. Before us now are nine visions, two of which hold promise in their parts, six of which are undercooked esquisses (little different from the ongoing fancies of amateurs) and one of which–the ringers’ plan–offers a pitch-perfect paean to the status quo, a developers’ delight. There’s a lot to discuss, sure. But remember two things: (1) For architects, presentation technologies are a mask and a crutch; the right software, well handled, can make any idea look like a winner. (2) There can be no winner without something to win.

The beguiling images that were released on December 18 were not the products of a design competition. That fact was made clear in bold text on the very first page of the Request for Qualifications brief posted last August by the LMDC– “This is NOT a design competition and will not result in the selection of a final plan”–and it was repeated quite plainly several times in published addenda to that document: “This is not a design competition. It is a design study.” The distinction is significant. The LMDC has bound itself only to search for “innovative designs” that will be presented “to the public to promote a free-flowing exchange of ideas.” That promise has been kept. Had this been an actual design competition, there would now be a reasonable expectation that a winner would be picked and a commission granted. Here again the August RFQ is eloquent: “At the conclusion of this process, the LMDC may choose to retain one or more of the participants to continue, or choose to retain none of them. Such election will be made at the discretion of the LMDC.”

That last passage still stands as the clearest written indication of next steps. But more was betrayed in comments made by John Whitehead, the internally embattled chairman of the LMDC, as he closed down the Winter Garden event. He thanked the architects for their many plans, which, he said, his agency would now have the task of reducing to one. The architects have fattened themselves for the cannibals’ feast; by the end of January the LMDC intends to digest their studies, by means unspecified, into a single master plan. By February, too, the Port Authority is scheduled to reveal another transparent-process wild card: its own in-house land-use vision, being drawn up now by Stan Eckstut, one of the original designers of Battery Park City. We’ll soon see how those plans might mesh. Right now it’s a state secret.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. That one bright December day at the World Financial Center belonged to “the visionaries.” So said Roland Betts, developer, chairman of the LMDC’s Joint Site Planning Committee, friend of George W. Bush and arguably the most powerful unelected official at the table. It was a generous sentiment, and it was true; after the Times editorial board deemed the designs “a gift” (“The government’s obligation…is to protect the scale and ambition of these plans against what are almost certain to be challenges from commercial and political interests”), after the online polls were closed at the New York Post and CNN (Foster’s “kissing” towers won both), after the submissions were put into vitrines at the Winter Garden for public review (all day, every day through February 2), this news cycle was immediately swallowed up by the annual slide into styling an American Christmas just like the ones we used to know. Whether by chance or tactic, that snowbound intermission took two weeks out of what was only a six-week window for the LMDC to assess its harvest of ideas, gather and weigh public comment (from the exhibition, online and at a public meeting scheduled for January 13), stitch together a successor scheme and somehow stretch that exquisite corpse around the unknown angles of the Port Authority’s “Plan X.” What does haste make? Here, a wealth of rumors that the fix is in.

Which is not to say the design study changed nothing. It has tilted the scales ever so slightly in favor of architectural quality–insofar as quality is synonymous with the products of architecture’s star system, deployed in the time-honored New York way: a signature skin job. After the big Winter Garden debut, it is unlikely that the LMDC or the Port Authority or Larry Silverstein can backtrack from the assumption that at least one marquee name will now be attached to the project. That has caused some observers, notably the Times‘s star-struck Muschamp, to dance little victory jigs in print. But it should offer only small comfort to lovers of the art and to all still hoping for difference at Ground Zero. Those who control the program and the publicity and the calendar and the money and the land and the sky above it can hardly be said to have bent much if they contract out for aesthetics. And–barring a lightning strike–that is where we’re heading, even if we open the papers one morning in the coming weeks or years to find that the powers downtown have hired the irresistible Lord Foster or the intense Daniel Libeskind or even the shining Frank Gehry, the last of the greats untarnished by participation in the process itself. (Gehry turned down an invitation to join the ill-fated Dream Team. He’s playing a longer game.) So save your hosannas. This is still business as usual, remember, even if writ large and strangely burdened. The odds-on future of the site remains a queasy trains-below, cubicles-above, memorial-in-the-footprints, shopping-everywhere dollop of old-normal Manhattan. And as in any other local real estate venture, the architect will be brought in to dress the developers’ numbers. No one should be surprised; that is the bone that is always thrown, and this time we saw the windup broadcast live on TV.

Will New Yorkers take to the streets for architecture? If so, the time is now. Either the brakes are put on hard–an exotic policy prevails (like Mayor Bloomberg’s pending offer to swap city-owned land under the airports for the Port Authority’s fiefdom downtown); an open, binding, juried competition like the one planned for the memorial is promised for the whole site; the bottom truly falls out of the economy and the problems wait for bolder times–or we should steel ourselves for sixteen acres of prime river-view disappointment. The tragically emptied World Trade Center pit began its afterlife as an arena for exaggerated quarrels; it has become a crucible of the absurd. The great glory and weakness of architecture is that it is forever tied to such mundane circumstance. Architecture is a contingent art. Whatever new thing we get at Ground Zero will embody the context of its creation: the halting, mendacious process unfolding before us in twilight. Which is why the shaken should look elsewhere for solace, why the broken should avert their eyes and why the lost should seek another, less worldly redemption.