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A towering challenge Add to ...

Something has clicked in the consciousness of New Yorkers. After lying down in the waters of sorrow, New Yorkers are standing up to speak about the florescence of an idea. Architecture matters. The gaping wound of Lower Manhattan could never be healed by the conventions of real-estate development, in which parcels of land are arranged like slabs of meat on a plate. They see this now with a sanguine clarity even while the grief for their hometown still lingers. What the post-Sept. 11 city needs more than ever is architecture by the world's most intelligent creators -- that is what New Yorkers have demanded and that is exactly what is about to be dished out.

One of the world's most remarkable think tanks on architecture has been unleashed. Yesterday, the invited architects met for the first time for a briefing held at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. (LMDC). If you listen hard enough, you can hear the sounds behind the thinking: the sometime slow, sometime furious scribbles on paper, the roar of airplanes bringing team members together, the screeching of chairs on hardwood floors and, rising over the rest of the noise, a cacophony of voices in design studios in London, Tokyo and New York.

Many of the appointed architects are already household names in Canada. Lord Norman Foster is the elder statesman of high-tech architectural marvels such as the remodeling of the Reichstag building in Berlin and the precisely engineered Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. tower in Hong Kong. The London-based Foster and Partners recently won a competition to design the $70-million Leslie L. Dan pharmacy building for the University of Toronto (with Moffat Kinoshita Architects).

Daniel Libeskind came to New York as a 14-year-old immigrant from Poland. His Jewish Museum in Berlin catapulted him to architectural acclaim because it provokes sensations of loss and celebration of Jewish culture. He was recently appointed architect of the $200-million redevelopment (with Bregman + Hamann Architects) of the Royal Ontario Museum in downtown Toronto.

Libeskind has just arrived for meetings in London from his base in Berlin, a city he adopted with his Torontonian wife Nina several years ago. Libeskind -- like the other architects -- has been thinking about the problem of the site long and hard. "This site has a very important role not only economically but spiritually for the world . . . I think you have to acknowledge in a profound way the murder that took place there and the attack on democracy and what the place represented, the freedom that people had, the way of life that was there." Libeskind is speaking with urgency now. "Architecture is an act of optimism. The site can't turn into a funerary area."

While Foster and Studio Libeskind will operate solo, the other four teams are artful assemblies of architects from around the world. United Architects, for instance, represents the experimental fringe of professional practice with participants such as Reiser + Umemoto and Greg Lynn, acclaimed for his amoeba designs for houses generated through sophisticated computer software. Foreign Office Architects, formidable intellectuals based in London who have designed the startling Yokohama International Port Terminal in Japan, give extra clout to that unit.

Another team includes Steven Holl, generator of luminous churches and museums as well as Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Charles Gwathmey -- old friends and founding members of the New York Five, the United States' modern, white architecture movement. Since then, Meier has designed the extravagant Getty Center in Los Angeles and Gwathmey the subdued addition to the Guggenheim Museum in New York -- Eisenman is the crusty provocateur of architectural discourse who designed the deeply disturbing Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

The New York office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, maker of pretty but nostalgic commercial and residential towers, leads another more unseemly collection of practitioners. The conventional thinking of SOM could be offset by the important landscape practice of Field Operations and a host of cutting-edge video and public artists -- but that's a guessing game right now.

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