I first saw the World Trade Center’s ruins a few weeks after September 11, 2001, at a time when the sulfurous stench of disaster still lingered over lower Manhattan. A prominent real estate developer invited me to view the wreckage from an adjacent office building. I was writing a newspaper article about the first stirrings of a debate within New York’s real estate community–a fractious coterie of politicians, planners and property magnates–about what might be rebuilt on the spot everyone had come to call “Ground Zero.” Looking down that day, as cranes lifted great bundles of debris, releasing clouds of yellow smoke from the depths of the pile, I was staggered by the enormity of the disaster. Sixteen acres of rubble. Meanwhile, my friend the developer, a smart and practical man, looked out the same window and saw something else: an opportunity. “It looks more and more like a construction site every day,” he said.

Looking back now, it seems premature, and perhaps a bit ghoulish, that the two of us were talking about construction as fliers bearing the faces of the missing still hung limply from lampposts downtown. But, as architecture critic Philip Nobel dryly notes, America reacted to unspeakable tragedy “by returning to first principles.” In New York, that meant building. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the city cannot abide a void. In those reeling days, many took solace in the notion that those precious acres, empty of all but meaning, might be filled with something that not only commemorated the nearly 3,000 dead but also affirmed that the city, and its aspirations, had survived.

Events moved fast, at times outpacing both mourning and deliberation. Two days after the attacks, Larry Silverstein, the developer who leased the Trade Center, told the Wall Street Journal, “It would be the tragedy of tragedies not to rebuild.” He suggested that four fifty-five-story skyscrapers be erected on the property–by Larry Silverstein, naturally. In November 2001, New York Governor George Pataki announced the creation of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), a state agency charged with devising a plan for the site. By early the next year, it was holding public hearings. The site was cleared of debris by July, as more than 1.6 million tons of steel, concrete, dust and pulverized human remains were ferried over to a final resting place at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. Shortly after that, the LMDC conducted a much-publicized architectural competition. Model skyscrapers were unveiled and hotly debated. A winner was chosen: Daniel Libeskind, an architect best known for his dark and contorted design of Berlin’s Jewish Museum. On July 4, 2004, less than three years after the World Trade Center’s destruction, Pataki, a Republican, looked on as the cornerstone of a new Freedom Tower was laid, just in time for his party’s national convention in New York.

This is a remarkable story: one of grit and determination, of unprecedented accomplishment at breakneck pace, amid the harshest possible public scrutiny. So why are the authors of three new books so disappointed? Paul Goldberger’s Up From Zero, Philip Nobel’s Sixteen Acres and Daniel Libeskind’s Breaking Ground approach the redevelopment project from different perspectives. Goldberger, The New Yorker‘s architecture critic, takes an evenhanded insider’s approach. Nobel, who covered the story for numerous publications, including The Nation, is an unabashed outsider, gleefully dissecting every motive, assumption and plan he comes across in the course of what he calls the “redevelopment follies.” Libeskind, the architect who was toasted and later humiliated, predictably recounts his own heroics in high-flown style, while stooping occasionally to settle some scores. Taken together, these books tell how an experiment in imagination, born of tragedy and buoyed by hope–hope that New York, in the names of the dead, might create something transcendent–ultimately came to grief.

They have appeared with the same headlong speed that characterized the entire rebuilding initiative. It may seem strange to read assessments of structures that, as of now, remain little more than plastic models and pencil marks. But these books are not premature, because they are not really about architecture. They are about politics, ambition, ego and greed. Architecture, Nobel writes, is “an art that is neither high nor low, an art that gets to be art only after locking lips with reality: satisfying a client, securing funds and permits and insurance, getting built.” In this case, reality demanded that whatever was constructed on the site of the World Trade Center fulfill two imperatives: First, pay tribute to the dead, and second–but by no means secondary–reproduce the millions in rental revenue generated by the World Trade Center.

Commemoration and commerce could not be easily reconciled. Over the course of 2002 and 2003, these conflicting imperatives clashed in public hearings and private meetings, in conference rooms, art galleries and magazine pages. To mediate the dispute, New York’s leaders, again returning to first principles, created a bureaucratic archipelago of agencies and advisory boards. Thus began what everyone came to call “the process.”

In his book, the most spirited of the three, Nobel speaks of “the process” as if it were a sentient being, invisibly pursuing its own agenda. In fact, as Nobel himself recognizes, it was a creature of its principal players–the truculent developer, the calculating governor, the blockheaded bureaucrats, the preening architects–who mouthed platitudes about sanctity and art, but mostly had more earthbound goals: making money, winning elections, protecting turf, achieving fame. The process disguised their pursuit of self-interest as an exercise in democracy.

The process demanded that something be rebuilt, quickly, to demonstrate America’s resolve (and to promote Pataki’s 2002 re-election bid). And since skyscrapers were destroyed, skyscrapers would rise, to send a message to the terrorists (and to shore up Silverstein). Whether new skyscrapers were necessary, whether new skyscrapers were a proper way to pay tribute to the dead, whether new skyscrapers made any economic sense–the process required that these valid questions be shunted aside in the interest of speed. “A deliberative pace,” Nobel writes, “was precluded by the associated politics of revenge.”

Fittingly, a similar irrationality was responsible for the original World Trade Center, a complex that loomed, unloved, 110 stories above lower Manhattan from 1973 to 2001. (In a typically withering aside, Nobel writes that Mohamed Atta, trained as an urban planner in Syria, “merely acted out the will of the towers’ many critics.”) The brainchild of David Rockefeller, the president of Chase Manhattan Bank, and Austin Tobin, the autocratic chieftain of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the complex was meant to revive the financial district and to stand as a monument to the mighty Port bureaucracy. Instead, it nearly killed the neighborhood. The maligned towers didn’t become a fashionable address for high-end tenants like investment banks. At the same time, their 10 million square feet of publicly subsidized office space held down rents in other downtown buildings, dampening the demand for new construction.

It wasn’t until the millennial boom that the World Trade Center became profitable enough to interest private developers. In August 2001, Silverstein agreed to pay the Port Authority $3.2 billion for a long-term lease. Many thought he overspent, but the septuagenarian Silverstein, until then regarded within the industry as a second-rank developer, viewed the Trade Center acquisition as the capstone to a building career. Then, just weeks after the deal closed, his trophy building was gone.

In martyrdom, the towers finally won the love of their city. All along, Nobel points out, the two most popular plans for the site called for rebuilding them just as they were, or for building nothing at all as a commemoration of loss. These ideas were quickly dismissed. Turning the site into a park or a “soaring, beautiful memorial,” as former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani suggested, would have deprived Silverstein and the Port Authority of their rental income. Rebuilding the towers as they were would go against current urban planning dogma, which values streets and storefronts over open plazas.

Could it have been different? Goldberger, like many New Yorkers, longed to see commercial considerations set aside; he writes favorably of a discarded plan to put the site to public use as a memorial park, while redistributing the lost office space by building elsewhere in the city. He believes that in the emotionally charged aftermath of the attacks, Silverstein might have been bought out, and the Port Authority might have been convinced to give up the hallowed ground. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration proposed trading the Port the city’s two airports in return for the Trade Center site, an innovative idea that died quietly, after which Bloomberg disappeared from the redevelopment debate.) But the moment passed, the acrid smoke cleared, everyone lawyered up and the process proceeded.

Nobel writes that the process followed its own logic, “a body of managed assumptions that passed for consensus,” which allowed “the public and private arbiters of the site to act under the umbrella of conventional wisdom as they navigated the minefield of an unconventional dispute.” Public opinion did matter, but only as long as it was expressed within these boundaries of economics and taste. It was quickly decided that some streets truncated by the old World Trade Center would be returned to their prelapsarian states, and that a new rail terminal would be built on the site. Both ideas pleased the city’s political elites, who had been weaned on the “new urbanism” model of planning. When an initial round of boxy site plans came under attack, the LMDC decided to invite some of the world’s most famous architects to test their imaginations on a master plan. This thrilled the city’s aesthetic elites, led by the New York Times‘s flamboyant architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, a man who “wrapped his power around himself like a luxurious fur-lined cloak,” Libeskind writes. For years, Muschamp had been bemoaning New York’s architectural timidity. But the seven teams named as semifinalists in the LMDC’s “Innovative Design Study” were heavily weighted toward big-named, big-thinking, big-egoed designers: Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, Lord Norman Foster, Richard Meier, Rafael Viñoly, among others. In December 2002 their visions were unveiled at a televised ceremony. Goldberger writes that it “may have been the most widely covered architectural event in history.”

This is where these books get interesting. The redevelopment process’s encounter with the world of avant-garde architecture is a tale fit for Tom Wolfe. (Actually, Libeskind’s attorney, the ubiquitous Manhattan fixer Eddie Hayes, was the model for Wolfe’s character Tommy Killian, the streetwise lawyer in The Bonfire of the Vanities.) As the project lurches toward banality, the characters plot, feud and leak to the newspapers, staging palace coups and office break-ins.

After the public unveiling, the LMDC’s selection committee narrowed the field to two finalists: Libeskind, whose design featured an angular office building with a 1,776-foot spire, and Viñoly’s team, which envisioned a pair of enormous latticework towers. Both architects were cast to type, Goldberger writes: “Libeskind dressed in black, with heavy, black-rimmed French eyeglasses and American cowboy boots, while the silver-haired Viñoly kept multiple pairs of eyeglasses on strings around his neck and atop his head.” Both spoke accented English, which was strange in Libeskind’s case, since, though born in Poland, he was mostly raised in the Bronx. During the three weeks that the committee pondered, the architects did The Oprah Winfrey Show and savaged one another in the press. Viñoly’s partisans called Libeskind’s plan, which featured a memorial that was sunken underground, “the pit.” Libeskind’s team derided Viñoly’s towers as “skeletons.” And Viñoly had other skeletons to worry about: On the eve of the selection committee’s decision, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Argentine architect, who had presented himself as a victim of the military junta that ruled his country in the 1970s and ’80s, had in fact accepted commissions from the regime.

The story was well timed for Libeskind. Nevertheless, on February 25, 2003, the committee picked Viñoly. The news was reported in the next day’s New York Times. Governor Pataki still had to sign off, but an anonymous committee member told the paper, “We don’t expect anyone to overrule us.” He was wrong. Pataki ignored the committee and picked Libeskind, rechristening his centerpiece skyscraper “Freedom Tower.”

What happened? One explanation can be found in an anecdote Libeskind recounts in Breaking Ground. It is worth retelling, because it reveals something about architecture’s role within the redevelopment process. Libeskind writes that when the committee was about to go Viñoly’s way, Eddie Hayes called Pataki. (Hayes had been advising Libeskind since early in the competition, proving that, goofy glasses notwithstanding, the architect knew how to navigate New York.) Hayes, who roomed with Pataki in law school, simply referred to the governor as “The Guy.” Libeskind quotes his lawyer’s description of what happened:

And so I’m sitting there…looking at the paper, and I’m thinking, Holy whatever! They lost! And I think to myself, You know it’s ridiculous that Eddie Hayes is going to have to push The Guy on something like this, but it’s me or nobody. I’ve seen the model. I know the plans. I know the man. I know Libeskind’s the right guy for this. So I call The Guy, and within a couple of minutes The Guy calls me back.

The string was tugged, and The Guy picked Libeskind’s design.

So there it is: The commission for arguably the most important architectural project in the history of New York was decided in a phone conversation between the governor and his old law school chum. This turn of events is not surprising. But it does make Libeskind’s indignation about his subsequent reverses hard to credit. The power the governor gave, he could (and did) take away. “What played out through 2002 and 2003,” Goldberger writes, “was the use of architecture for political ends, not the use of politics for architectural ends.”

From there, the story follows a predictable course. Silverstein wants his own architect to design Freedom Tower: David Childs, of the establishment firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Libeskind, after much infighting, is relegated to a subordinate role. What results is a lobotomized version of Libeskind’s original plan. A separate competition chooses a memorial design that further departs from Libeskind’s vision. Several prominent architects are chosen to design buildings on the site: Santiago Calatrava, a train station; Frank Gehry, a performing arts center; Norman Foster, an office building. But Libeskind is shut out.

Libeskind feigns pride in the remnants of his plan that remain, but he’s halfhearted. The critics are less charitable. Nobel describes Freedom Tower’s design as “a mongrel tower with a twist, a false top, and a piercing spire–a speculative commercial office building transformed through the alchemy of the process into an emblem of the process itself.” The key word is “speculative.” A new incarnation of 7 World Trade Center, an office building also owned by Silverstein, is currently being built without the promise of any large-scale tenants. Renting out the much larger Freedom Tower, a building constructed as a taunt to Osama bin Laden, won’t be easy. As an economic proposition, the project evokes memories of the old, empty World Trade Center. “In mid-2004,” Goldberger concludes, “the Freedom Tower seemed less to signify innovation than history repeating itself.”

The battle between commerce and commemoration was never much of a contest. It’s too early to tell whether the final memorial design, by Michael Arad, will strike the right emotional chord. After all, it must describe a story to which we don’t yet know the ending. What is evident, however, is that Arad’s work will merely be a component in a large-scale office development, like one of those public amenities–a fountain, a mural, a windswept plaza–developers routinely throw into their projects to win political favor. “How will the dead compete with all this reverence for lost construction?” Nobel asks bitterly.

It’s not shocking that profit and politics triumphed over propriety. After all, this is New York. One recent morning, I paid a visit to the World Trade Center site, my first since that fall day in 2001. Strolling down a covered walkway that spans the site, I counted only a few other gawkers, among them an Amish couple from Indiana. The investment bankers bustled past without as much as a downward glance. Truth is, there wasn’t much to see. Down below, helmeted workmen scurried about the paved floor of the pit. A giant jackhammer pounded away. Ground Zero was what it was destined to become: a construction site.