The metropolis is in calamitous decline everywhere you look in India. Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are in this country. Earlier this year, Shimla ran out of water, a fate expected to plague a further 21 cities over the next two years. Meanwhile, urbanisation continues at a dizzying pace. Between 2018 and 2050, the United Nations says, Indian cities will burgeon exponentially, adding another 416 million residents to become home for 60% of the nation’s population, which will overtake China’s in 2025 to become the largest in the world.

All this was anticipated. As far back as 1989, the renowned modernist architect Charles Correa wrote in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences: “We cannot get rich overnight; poverty is going to be with us for some years to come, and our 21st century will be dominated by the struggle for human equity. For us in India, those colossal waves of distress migration engulfing our towns and cities are going to occupy centrestage – generating the overriding political and moral issues of the next five decades.” But that clarion never registered in the ears that matter, and no responsible preparations were ever attempted. Correa himself acknowledged, “Our criminal indifference to cities…allowed conditions to deteriorate to sub-human levels.”

That admission came in another essay titled Great City, Terrible Place, which eventually became the theme of the first Z-Axis conference in 2015, an initiative hosted in Goa by the Charles Correa Foundation, which is based in Fontainhas, the oldest neighborhood of Panjim, the state capital. For the first time, nearly 1,000 architects and urban planners from across the subcontinent gathered together with Pritzker Award winner Rafael Moneo from Spain and industry veterans from India: Raj Rewal, Mahendra Raj and Correa himself. From inception the initiative aimed high: “to connect the fraternity of thinker-doers in the domains of architecture, urban design, planning, social projects and conservation to an audience of influencers, professionals and students…thus creating a consequential community of intellectuals who will invariably influence the future”.

Charles Correa warned about the disastrous consequences of the 'criminal indifference to cities'. Photo credit: Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics

Correa died in June 2015, three months after that event. But the foundation persists in its work as “a catalyst for architectural, urban design, planning, and community-based projects that improve the condition of human settlements in India” and has continued with Z-Axis. In 2016, the conference theme was Buildings as Ideas, featuring global standouts such as Leila Araghian, a young architect from Iran whose extraordinary Tabiat Bridge has become an iconic attraction in Tehran, and Ilze Wolff of South Africa, whose main preoccupation is architecture’s complicity in “the construction of societal structures of power, race and gender”.

Now officially biennial, Z-Axis is steered by the foundation’s director Nondita Correa Mehrotra, who is Correa’s daughter and a Principal at RMA Architects, alongside her husband Rahul Mehrotra, the current Chair of the department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She chose to theme the 2018 edition, which started on September 6, Designing Equitable Cities.

Systemic flaws

“With this edition of Z-Axis, we have invited speakers who are social scientists [and] whose work has been on Indian cities,” said Correa Mehrotra. “We’ve also invited architects and urban designers, many from the global south, who have worked in similar conditions as those in Indian cities. Fundamentally, equitable cities are about creating the channels of communication for everyone – the public and semi-public places where we congregate, the environment where we all can share. A conference like this is really for civil society as it engages all of us in our concerns for better cities. The more equitable our cities, the more diverse are the people that participate, and the better for all.”

The 2018 line-up of Z-Axis includes a number of intriguing twists such as a presentation on The City Betrayed by Gautam Patel, a judge of the Bombay High Court, who has developed an avid following for his compellingly readable judgements, written with great dramatic flair, and a penchant for poetry.

Other than Correa, few have summarised the plight of Indian cities as incisively as Patel. At a symposium on Safe Cities in August 2013, he said:

“This fracturing of urban communities is a result of our chosen forms of urban architecture and town planning, and is itself a consequence of the distortions in economic policy and development over the last several decades. Warped definitions of progress – fancier cars for the few, little or no attention to mass transit and public transport, public infrastructure and open spaces – lead to urban-built forms that are incongruous and inappropriate…It is the architecture of impatient social imperialism, the architecture of individualism, the architecture of exclusion. The built form reflects a change in perception and attitude, where the individual and his needs are not only paramount, but where the needs of the community are reduced to irrelevance.”

Myopic urban policies have contributed to the spiralling decline of cities like Mumbai. Photo credit: PTI

Patel describes entrenched problems which indicate seemingly irredeemable systemic flaws. But that morass is precisely where Correa sought to intervene. Correa Mehrotra points to her father’s 1983 Thomas Cubitt lecture, where he said, “We are only as big as the questions we address. And this, to my mind, is the riveting fact of life for architects in the Third World. Not the size or value of the projects we are working on, but the nature of the questions they raise – and which we must confront.” In other words, paraphrasing Michelangelo, every urban quandary already has an elegant solution locked up inside it, and it is the job of architects and planners to set it free.

That is what another Z-Axis 2018 speaker, Alejandro Echeverri from Colombia, helped achieve in Medellin, which drug traffickers had degraded to “the most dangerous city on earth” throughout the 1990s. Still entrenched in crime in the 21st century, the city began to transform under a popular new mayor, Sergio Fajardo, the son of an architect and an evangelical believer in the power of urban design.

According to The Guardian’s series The Story of Cities, Fajardo and Echeverri shared a solid “commitment to the public realm as a truly shared space, and a faith that they could transform Medellín’s public spaces from sites of segregation and warfare into spaces where communities would come together…way beyond the more modest experiments with participatory planning and community consultation that are now vogue in cities across the globe. The sheer enormity and complexity of the issues here demanded something unique – an urbanism of inclusion, where the dispossessed became partners in driving urban change.”

Medellín, which was the most dangerous city a few decades ago, has undergone a remarkable transformation. Photo credit: Zomogy/Pixabay [Creative Commons CC0]

All this is exactly what Correa himself stressed throughout his career. In his seminal 1985 book, The New Landscape, he outlined the Indian urban planner’s most basic conundrums with sensitivity and perceptiveness:

“Architecture is an agent of change…which is why a leader like Mahatma Gandhi is called the architect of the nation. Neither the engineer, nor the dentist, not the historian. But the architect, i.e., the generalist who speculates on how the pieces could fit together in more advantageous ways. One who is concerned with what might be. And to do this, in the context of the Third World, we must have the courage to face very disturbing issues. For what is your moral right to decide for ten thousand, for a hundred thousand, for two million people? But then what is the morality of not acting, in merely watching passively the slow degradation of life around you? This is indeed a cruel dilemma. To act or not act. On the one hand. The dangers of fascism, on the other the paralysis of Hamlet. It is a profoundly disturbing issue, one which will define the key moral values of the first half of the 21st century.”

“Charles always felt that as an architect and as a designer, he had to use his skills to solve the problem,” said Correa Mehrotra. “He would always say that as architects we are compulsive problem solvers, dealing with spatial issues. I feel that it is important for the Foundation, in dealing with Charles’ legacy, to have exhibitions and publish books on his work, to get people to look at his archives which span 60 years, and to really understand his work and how he articulated the problem and solved it. And through the conferences and workshops, give the profession a forum to discuss issues that Charles thought were important. At one level, people recognise his style. We think he was much more about ideas for solving problems. The problems he addressed, how he defined them and the solutions he found, are his enduring legacy.”