His scheme preserved the lost trade center's foundation and invoked the nation's birth with a 1,776-foot tower. And Libeskind, a dynamo in designer glasses, seemed the perfect salesman for a challenging work of architecture.
Since then, a tug of war with trade center developer Larry Silverstein threatened to push Libeskind into a secondary role. Politicians, business people and victims' relatives promoted their agendas, and it seemed unlikely at times that Libeskind's plan would be realized in any recognizable form.
But Libeskind has fought for his vision and, so far at least, has managed to keep it largely intact.
"Look, you have to represent what you believe in," he said in an interview with The Associated Press at his firm's new world headquarters in lower Manhattan. "And you have to remember that this design was selected ... not in a boardroom by some elite backroom dealers. It was done in a transparent process with all the citizens of New York and 50 million people voting on the Internet.
"So my responsibility is to that great constituency."
Born in Lodz, Poland, to parents who had survived the Holocaust, Libeskind studied music as a child. The family emigrated to Israel and then to the United States, where Libeskind attended the Bronx High School of Science and New York's Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He did graduate work in the history and theory of architecture at Essex University in Britain.
Slight of build, with a bristle of graying hair, the 57-year-old speaks in a rapid staccato as he discusses his plans in a makeshift conference room, where a door on two sawhorses constitutes the table. On this day his pleated Issey Miyake jacket was accented with an American flag lapel pin for a Lou-Reed-meets-Kate-Smith effect.
When he unveiled his design in December 2002, Libeskind spoke of arriving in New York as a teenage immigrant and seeing the skyline. His zeal for repairing that skyline - scarred by an unthinkable attack on Sept. 11, 2001 - has not waned.
"I did not approach it as just another project, another bunch of buildings and commissions," he said. "I appreciate what New York stands for. I appreciate what happened to it. ... It's something that happened to me. I was attacked."
Though the choice of Libeskind seems natural, the process was convoluted.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate agency that owns the trade center site, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the city-state agency created to redevelop it, released six plans in summer 2002 that were greeted with widespread derision.
The agencies then put out a call for cutting-edge architects from around the world to submit ideas.
Eugenie Birch, a professor of planning at the University of Pennsylvania who was on the selection jury, said Libeskind's selection as a finalist was unanimous.
"Everyone considered him one of the most influential and important thinkers about urban design in the world," she said.
After soliciting public comment, a committee representing the two development agencies, the governor and mayor chose Libeskind's design in February. Libeskind spoke of "optimism in the aftermath of tragedy," and his plan was seen as a bold attempt to reconcile the demands of memory and commerce.
Silverstein, who signed a 99-year lease on the twin towers just weeks before they were destroyed, required 10 million square feet of office space to replace what was lost.
Libeskind housed the office space in a collection of jagged modern buildings offset by a pit where the foundation, or slurry walls - the only part of the trade center that remained - would be preserved.
The concrete walls, which had held back the Hudson River, were for Libeskind a metaphor for democracy unbowed by terrorism.
A "Wedge of Light" plaza would be aligned with the sun so there would be no shadows on Sept. 11 between 8:46 a.m., when the first airplane hit, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower collapsed.
Like its creator, the design combined intellectual rigor with unabashed patriotism. The 1,776-foot Freedom Tower mirrored the Statue of Liberty across the harbor.
"It's simplicity blended with sophistication that really works," said Birch, who said she cried when she first saw the plan.
Still, Libeskind had detractors.
Architect Rafael Vinoly, whose plan for latticework towers lost to Libeskind's scheme, derided his rival's design as "the Wailing Wall."
Another architect, Eli Attia, pooh-poohed the Wedge of Light, claiming shadows from surrounding buildings - notably the hotel he himself designed - would turn the plaza into "a Wedge of Darkness and Shame."
Silverstein sent mixed messages, praising Libeskind but grumbling that tenants would reject a view of the pit.
Accounts of strife surfaced regularly.
"Architect demoted in Ground Zero feud," read one headline after Silverstein hired David Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill as the architect who would actually develop Libeskind's Freedom Tower.
But six months after his selection, the balance of power appears to have shifted back toward Libeskind.
Redevelopment officials rejected Silverstein's idea of moving the Freedom Tower from the site's northwest corner. Libeskind signed a $3 million contract with the development corporation and Port Authority as master planner for the 16-acre site.
After lengthy negotiations, Childs and Libeskind linked arms and promised to collaborate on the Freedom Tower. And Libeskind praised the Port Authority's selection of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design the transit hub linking city subways to commuter lines.
Officials say it was never intended that Libeskind would execute detailed designs of all the buildings himself. Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, said Libeskind's influence will be felt even as other architects sign on to design specific pieces.
"Reports of his irrelevance were greatly exaggerated," Kamin said.
Libeskind himself was optimistic, saying "things are moving in the right direction, definitely."
He was circumspect about Silverstein. "People have their own opinions, they pursue their own goals," he said. "But at the end of it what I have to do is represent ... the public good."
Libeskind was known as an academic until 1989, when he won a competition to design the Jewish Museum in Berlin. That project took 12 years and elevated him into the ranks of the world's leading architects.
"It's a landmark of the new Berlin," said Nigel Cox, curator of an upcoming exhibit devoted to Libeskind's career at the Jewish Museum. Cox praised Libeskind's "ability to communicate emotions about history to non-architectural specialists."
Libeskind said designing the Berlin museum taught him patience.
"There were moments when it looked very bleak, that nobody wanted it, that it wasn't going to get built," he said.
Now, Libeskind is busy all over the world.
Ground has been broken for an addition to the Denver Art Museum, where director Lewis Sharp called Libeskind "a joy to work with, both architecturally and as a person."
A long-delayed addition to London's Victoria and Albert Museum has been endorsed by British Culture Minister Tessa Jowell. Construction is to begin next year.
With appearances on magazine covers and on "Oprah," Libeskind is widely recognized now.
"Cars stop sometimes. People unroll their windows and say, 'Keep going, Mr. Libeskind, we're with you,'" he said. "I have to say that kind of vigilance from the public is the only thing that's actually protecting the site from being just treated as a normal business venture. ... Something very special should happen on this site."