A few days ago, the outstanding poet and translator Mustansir Dalvi (he has also been on the faculty of Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Architecture for 17 years) released a new collection of verse. Walk, he said, was written from his “sense of helplessness, frustration and anger” earlier this year, when “we were seeing vast number of people, walking back home, sometimes covering over 1,000 km from state to state, without support, money or transportation”.

By now, it’s clear India launched heedlessly into “the world’s strictest lockdown” without the measures necessary to safeguard the vast majority of its citizens. At that time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi misguidedly promised that the “Mahabharata war was won in 18 days, this war the whole country is fighting against corona will take 21 days”.

That victory never materialised and the backbone of India’s post-liberalisation economy – its celebrated “demographic dividend” of hundreds of millions of migrant workers – quickly figured out they had been abandoned. The cities had failed them, and they streamed on the highways towards the relative safety of home.

Dalvi captures that debacle with coruscating acuity.

Nightwalkers glide through Tier III towns.
Zephyrs susurrate through streets,
rise to murmurations, then fall silent.

Rivulets meet, break, tumescent,
quicksilver, never reaching a momentum
that would lead to deluge.

No hive mind this, everyone
remains the nayak of their own story.
The desire for relief is a bucket of cold water
poured over every glowing ember of revolution.

That is what kept coming to mind during the Inaugural session of the Charles Correa Foundation’s 2020 Z-Axis Conference on September 1. The enormity of our collective pandemic predicament loomed inescapable, and its implications also suffused the post-lecture discussion between Swarnabh Ghosh, a PhD student at Harvard, and Mirai Chatterjee of SEWA, moderated with his characteristically dazzling intellectual fluency by Ranjit Hoskote.

It was another daunting reminder that – vaccine or no vaccine – we are never going “back to how things used to be.” As Chatterjee pointed out, the Covid-19 crisis tested every aspect of the society India has built up since 1947, and the results are appalling. There will be no potentially hopeful “new normal” until this comprehensive failure is addressed.

Yet, if there are realistic ways out of India’s extraordinarily pervasive urban disaster (just for one fact, the country contains 21 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world) then we are likely to hear about them at Z-Axis.

Founded in 2015 by the late Charles Correa – one of the most significant architects of the 20th century – this unique gathering (it is now biennial) was “intended to connect thinker-doers in the domains of architecture, urban design, planning, and conservation to an audience of professionals and students in these fields” in order “to instigate a relevant discussion on issues that relate to architecture and urbanisation”.

The aftermath of the Beirut explosion: Credit: Stephanie Glinsky

From inception, Z-Axis had a mighty reach. It hosted highly memorable sessions, and brought some of the world’s pre-eminent “starchitects” to Correa’s own intimate, tropical modern masterpiece of the Kala Academy on the Mandovi riverfront of Panjim, the capital of Goa, his ancestral homeland.

In this first pandemic-girded digital edition, all that capacity has been exercised with considerable nous and sensitivity, by Nondita Correa Mehrotra, the director of the foundation that bears her father’s name and also a distinguished architect. She has stacked the Z-Axis schedule – it plays out over the next four Saturdays – with an intriguing highlight reel of projects and speakers from around the world: Santiago, Beijing, Zurich, Fez, Buenos Aires, Cairo, and several locations in India and North America.

“I think there is a commonality that we all face,” she told me via email from her home in Brookline, outside Boston. “Cities across the globe are dealing with the pandemic, and trying to work out what it means to build communities, and make civic space accessible to the broader public. We cannot ignore how the issues of civic space and public health are thoroughly interlinked, and must harness the talent of architects and planners so that they get involved in finding design solutions.”

One way the 2020 Z-Axis Conference aims to kickstart this process is by dovetailing into a design challenge, complete with guidebook, podcasts, blogs and project discussions leading to awards in December.

But everything begins with the sessions: Redefining the City for the Public, Commons and the City, Streets in the Neighborhood, and Homes in the Street. “These issues need to be looked at up and down the scale,” said Correa Mehrotra. “That’s why we take four slices, each at a scale that will give us insight in to the problem.”

A socially engaged architect

I am especially excited about hearing Alejandro Aravena speak on September 26. The 53-year-old won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2016 for “leading a new generation of architects that has a holistic understanding of the built environment and has clearly demonstrated the ability to connect social responsibility, economic demands, design of human habitat and the city”.

The jury concluded, “Aravena epitomises the revival of a more socially engaged architect especially in his long-term commitment to tackling the global housing crisis and fighting for a better urban environment for all. He has a deep understanding of both architecture and civil society, as is reflected in his writing, his activism and his designs. The role of the architect is now being challenged to serve greater social and humanitarian needs, and [he] has fully responded to this challenge.”

Another highly pertinent session is on September 5 with the outstanding Lebanese architect Mona Fawaz, who is now caught up with the rebuilding of Beirut after the devastating dockexplosion on August 4. Her work determinedly plumbs the vital role, and inherent rights, of those “positioned outside the social, economic, and political elites of the city” in order to present “an alternative conceptualisation of both the history of the city and its present”.

Credit: Housing and Land Rights Network

Such brilliant work, of such immense value to where we find ourselves in India. So why is it that these lessons continually fail to permeate into this country, and alleviate the unremittingly bleak cityscapes where almost all Indian urbanites are condemned to live?

“The conversations that we have, and the actions that we take, are driven by our values,” Correa Mehrotra said. “Our cities reflect our values. If what we value most is capital, then we get one kind of city. If it is equity, if it is democracy, if it is health and sustainability, we can get another kind of city. As Charles often did, this conference challenges its participants to consider which values they want in their city, and to think creatively about how to realize that vision. We hope the projects they see over the next four weeks will inspire them to design that second kind of city.”

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.