What happens when some of America’s most valuable commercial property becomes the locus of an epic national event? At present, the void where the World Trade Center once stood in New York City is the nation’s most poignant pilgrimage destination—a bleak and unsettling place that is at once a crime scene, a battlefield, and a cemetery. But it is also our most eligible construction site: sixteen acres of land at the foot of Wall Street, the epicenter of world capitalism. At first blush, it is impossible to reconcile these fundamentally opposed concepts—sacred terrain, or mere real estate?—but in the next few months both developers and the officials charged with overseeing the site will be asked to do just that.

In ordinary times, there would be no conflict. The disposition of ground zero, as it is now called, would be the prerogative of Larry A. Silverstein, the real-estate developer who acquired the lease to the World Trade Center last July. But this is hardly an ordinary moment. For the first time since the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., an architectural question has become a matter of intense national debate.

Within a few days of the September 11 attacks, hastily devised proposals for new buildings and memorials at the New York site were already darting about the Internet. Some of these were stirring. They included the “Towers of Light,” a proposal by the architects Gustavo Bonevardi and John Bennett (modified by others, renamed “Tribute in Light,” and scheduled for temporary installation on March 11) to create a diaphanous image of the towers with lasers pointed skyward. Others were stirring in a different way. One popular proposal called for a cluster of five towers suggesting a fist with an upraised central shaft: an image that well captured the belligerent spirit of those early weeks.

Other influential voices were also to be heard, however, and these rejected any expansive gestures at all. The ruins of the buildings themselves, it was said, especially the seven-story lattice of steel that was all that remained of the south tower, made for a more appropriate memorial than any self-conscious artistic creation. Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote on September 25 that this ghostly arcade would be a “fitting, realistic, and moving monument to those who died there.”

For such a monument there was, indeed, ample precedent, including England’s Coventry Cathedral and the Gedächtnis-Kirche in central Berlin, both of which turn the hulk of a burned-out church into the heart of a war monument. But on the very same day Montebello wrote, workmen at ground zero had begun demolishing the steel frame in question, which could not be permitted to stand during the strenuous labor of clearing the site. Although Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered the fragments stored for possible reuse, their removal immediately altered their meaning, which was entirely a function of their grim authenticity.

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Between these options, the public wavered. A Harris poll taken a few weeks after the attacks showed sentiment split into three nearly equal factions: those who would rebuild the towers exactly as they had been, those who would rebuild in a different form, and those who preferred to dedicate the entire site as a monument. Of these, the first—swift and fearless replication—was in some ways the most attractive: an act of cheeky defiance that would proclaim an America unbowed. In the October issue of Architectural Record, several of the country’s leading architects endorsed this idea, among them the successor firm of Minoru Yamasaki, who had designed the original complex.

But this option soon fell by the wayside. To re-create buildings that had already twice been the victims of determined international terrorists (the first time in 1993) would be to tempt fate. Tenants would assuredly be scarce, insurers still scarcer. Or so at least calculated Silverstein who, working with the architectural firm of Skidmore Owings Merrill, proposed instead a knot of 50-story (later amended to 60-story) towers, well under the 110 stories of the originals. These buildings would correspond roughly to the height of the surrounding cityscape, and would thus incidentally defuse the most unpopular aspect of the old towers, namely, their haughty indifference to scale and context.

But by this point Silverstein no longer had an entirely free hand. In November, Governor George Pataki formed the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), a city-state partnership to coordinate the work of reconstruction. Its chairman, John C. Whitehead (a former head of Goldman Sachs), was given a vague formal mandate—“to oversee the rebuilding and revitalization of lower Manhattan”—but it was understood that he would represent concerns other than the merely commercial, and in particular the sentiments of residents, community groups, and victims’ families.

Complicating the task of the LMDC was the widespread belief that the site should be reserved as a national shrine, on the order of Gettysburg or Valley Forge. This feeling ran especially high among survivors’ advocacy groups, such as September’s Mission, and elicited much public sympathy. On December 7, the National Park Trust also weighed in, urging that the site be treated with the same scrupulous safeguards as a federal park. Shortly thereafter, Whitehead announced plans for a provisional memorial, a “green space for quiet contemplation” that would serve until a permanent one could be built.

Surprisingly, the proposal drew support from Giuliani, a business-friendly mayor who nevertheless closed out his term with a stirring call to exempt the entire sixteenacre site from commercial use. “We should think about a soaring, monumental, beautiful memorial that just draws millions of people here, that just want to see it. If the memorial was done correctly you’ll have all the economic development you want.” This declaration marked the high-water mark of anti-development sentiment.

Nature, however, abhors no vacuum so much as a vacant lot in Manhattan. After a decent interval, and after securing a promise of insurance settlements, Silverstein announced his first building plans in early February. A new, smaller office tower would rise on the site of 7 World Trade Center, which collapsed late in the afternoon of September 11.

The project was carefully chosen. Situated on Vesey Street, across from the twin towers, the lot is at the periphery of ground zero, whose future development it would not constrain. Nor, since 7 World Trade Center evidently collapsed without loss of life, would building on the site desecrate hallowed land. Nevertheless, Silverstein’s announcement was greeted with dismay, for it seemed to presage a process of nibbling away at the pieces of ground zero until ultimately the opportunity for a great national memorial would be lost. Although Silverstein had been working assiduously with the LMDC to make his building as agreeable as possible to the inhabitants of lower Manhattan, both Pataki and New York’s new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, were suggesting by late February that nothing should go ahead until an overall plan for the area was completed. The battle over 7 World Trade Center is undoubtedly a portent of things to come.

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In the meantime, the purely architectural opportunities afforded by the World Trade Center site have galvanized the profession as it has not been galvanized since the great skyscraper wars of the 1920’s. Here had stood the city’s tallest buildings, on the city’s most prominent site—the very prow of the island. And here now was a great swath of open space, on the scale of the Rockefeller Center complex, where one might do much more than shoehorn a slender office tower. For architects, this was a “commission” of a kind that comes very few times in a century.

In short order, unsolicited designs, renderings, and idea sketches poured forth. Seizing the moment, the New York gallery of Max Protech organized an exhibition entitled “A New World Trade Center: Design Proposals.” On display were projects by 50 architects, many of them international celebrities like Hans Hollein, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid.1

Most of the exhibitors offered visionary new forms of the skyscraper. The few exceptions included Frei Otto of Germany, who, declining to build a “Tower of Babel,” suggested instead a quiet healing park from which all architectural elements were kept away, and Eytan Kaufman, who designed a vast pedestrian bridge to New Jersey. Aside from these, the exhibition consisted almost entirely of picaresque behemoths, ranging from the unbuildable to the megalomaniacal.

It is difficult to convey how tragically bad most of them were: frenzied and overwrought performances falsely exploiting the dignity of the site itself. Lars Spuybroek’s reeling “Oblique WTC” was representative of the lot: several towers rising from multiple limbs that writhe in space until they converge three-quarters of the way up, creating something like a conventional skyline but also something that buildings of the past had not been thought to need: a crotch. Other proposals similarly undulated and quivered, reflecting the persistent, baleful influence on contemporary architecture of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. A wavy array of green and red skyscraper-sized tendrils contributed by the firm of Jack and MacFarlane, intended to serve as an “allegory” of the ruins, suggested nothing so much as Chinese food left for too long in the refrigerator.

For all its self-conscious edginess and originality, a certain mustiness clung to this exhibit. Many of the designs inescapably evoked moments from the 1960’s like the spontaneous architectural happenings of the Archigram group, whose psychedelic renderings envisioned “instant cities” descending from spaceships. One project for a 110-story “building riddled with holes” and already “pre-exploded”—presumably to save future terrorists the trouble—loomed in drawings like a Swiss-cheese leviathan and might have leaped from the pages of Claes Oldenburg’s sketchbook. This was the work of Vito Acconci, the performance artist once celebrated for public onanism; it at least confirmed his aesthetic consistency.

Along with stale architecture came a considerable amount of stale politics. Worst in this regard was the “e-motive architecture” of the Dutchman Kas Oosterhuis. This depicted a building that would constantly change shape in accordance with the calendar and with shifting needs, assuming the exact physical form of the World Trade Center every September 11. It came complete with a vulgar printed harangue urging, “Come on America, wake up. Do not waste our precious time on the easy killing of poorly armed people.”

Apart from a few glib gestures, almost none of the exhibits offered anything in the way of a real memorial. In fact, many of the participating architects expressed hostility to any such thing, disparaging the “monumental petrification of mourning” (Spuybroek) or a “sentimental physical memorial” (Hariri & Hariri). Their quirky, festive skyscrapers would instead impose flourishes and squiggles on the skyline that would speak less to a pilgrim arriving on foot in search of solemnity than to a distant and distracted commuter stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike across the river.

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For sensitive designs at human scale, one had to look elsewhere. Particularly thoughtful was the scheme by the firm of Franck Kohsen McCrery that was published in the Autumn 2001 issue of City Journal. Their work not only commemorates the September attacks with a noble memorial plaza, enriched with public sculpture, but would also restore something of the traditional streetscape of lower Manhattan. Although the architects were hardly so crass as to say so, the truth is that the original World Trade Center plaza was something of a crater, and rather totalitarian in scale. In its place they have sutured together the streets it had sundered, reestablishing the traditional street pattern of lower Manhattan (which, it must be pointed out, is not the fixed and inflexible grid of upper Manhattan but much looser and more relaxed).

Working in collaboration with the sculptor Alexander Stoddart, these architects also devised a haunting piece of statuary for their plaza: a pair of oversized figures representing History and Memory atop a draped catafalque, a tacit acknowledgment that for many victims of the attack, this is an ultimate resting place. A similarly inspired monument appearing in the same issue of City Journal was proposed by the artist Elliott Banfield and Henry Hope Reed, the architect and founder of an organization that works to reinvigorate the tradition of classicism in the arts. Banfield and Reed envision a column that would serve as the terminating gesture in an arcaded urban plaza. Like Stoddart’s plan, it, too, is firmly rooted in history, recalling the memorial column with which London announced its renewal after the great fire of 1666.

As dignified and handsome as these schemes are, they have not enjoyed anywhere near the resonance of those electrifying designs shown by Max Protech, which have been widely disseminated over the Internet. It is not hard to see why. Designing with the physical experience of the space in mind, thinking a project through in terms of civic function, are crippling defects in a contest that is being waged essentially by means of electronic imagery.

Most Americans experienced the attack vicariously on television, and tend to judge its proposed monuments by how well they look on computer screens. Such is the unconscious authority of the familiar. And here Protech’s architects, many of whom themselves clearly designed their work on the computer, stand on advantageous ground. The same can be said for the “Towers of Light,” or for the designs of Fred Bernstein, an artist who has proposed extending two great piers out into New York harbor, evoking the World Trade Center towers as two collapsed slabs in the water. All of these offer a set of substitute motifs that are meant to compete with a viewer’s (far more vivid) mental images of the actual toppling towers. An unbuilt monument to a terrible event thus threatens to turn into a monument to a horrifying day before the television set.

But there is something else at work in these designs as well. The World Trade Center attack was an immense propaganda coup. The awful formal symmetry of the events—a slow-motion death march, carried out to a four-four rhythm of crash crash collapse collapse—possesses an almost mythic quality, which can easily overwhelm any insufficiently brazen monument. In Oklahoma City, the site of the 1997 bombing of the federal building by Timothy McVeigh is marked by a congregation of empty chairs—a feeble gesture, however soothing it may be to survivors. The fractured towers and mutilated geometries proposed by the competitors in the Max Protech Gallery run the opposite risk: commemorating not the victims but the mad sweep and audacity of the killers.

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A monument is not a novel, and should not be cluttered with details, incidents, and anecdotes. Its task is to sift through events, to see large outlines, to separate the enduring from what is merely temporary or accidental. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington rightly neglects to inform us that our great President was at times a ruthless political intriguer. Through the filter of time, we can see large acts and achievements in relief, purged of distraction.

This is precisely what we cannot yet do in the present instance—which is why it is foolhardy, in my opinion, to devise a war memorial while the war is still in progress. (A transitional monument, like the “Tribute in Light,” elegiac and yet ephemeral in character, is something else again.) There will be time enough for us to take a truer measure of September 11. In taking that measure, moreover, we ought not forget that the events of that day unfolded not in New York alone but on three different battlefields in three different parts of the country. Although each of them deserves recognition, no doubt there should be one monument to stand for all—and there is at least as much to be said for its being elsewhere as in New York.

If there is any site that deserves a national shrine to September 11, it is the field in southwestern Pennsylvania where United Airlines flight 93 crashed. This was the one consolation of that mournful day, when the fate of the U.S. Capitol (the terrorists’ most likely target) was decided on a battlefield no wider than the aisle of a commercial airliner by passengers so poorly armed that they joked about having to use plastic cutlery in their attempt to overwhelm and disarm the hijackers. Here, unlike at the World Trade Center, and unlike at the Pentagon, no jumble of visual images competes with our imagination, and a monument might fittingly address the mind and spirit rather than merely revivifying televised memories. Nor would a visitor to this site be tempted to think that what was being mourned was a pair of 1970’s minimalist skyscrapers. There is, indeed, no more fitting subject for a memorial than the story of United 93 and of Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, and Thomas Bennett, protagonists of one of the most terrible and enthralling episodes of self-sacrifice in American history.

As for New York, it is of the greatest national importance that the city rebuild itself. There is a moral obligation to do so. Leaving the burned hulks of churches as a visible warning to future generations may have been right in postwar Germany, but here it would strike a note of mortification and penance inappropriate to our circumstances. As with every city that has survived earthquake, fire, and flood, from London to Lisbon, the proper and fitting course is to rebuild. Not to do so is to proceed from injury to self-mutilation. Perhaps one day our cities shall crumble and, as in ancient Carthage, our enemies will sow our fields with salt. There is no reason to start the process now.

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1 The exhibition ran from January 17 to February 16 at the Max Protech Gallery and will open at the American Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on April 7.

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