India is currently the second most populated country in the world, closely following China, at 1.25 billion people. Around 30 percent of its inhabitants, roughly the population of the entire United States, live in urban areas that continue to grow. The astonishing numbers are proof of the country’s demographic explosion, and make Indian cities a fascinating combination of chaos and vitality rarely found elsewhere. Great City…Terrible Place, this year’s Z-AXIS symposium curated by the Charles Correa Foundation in Goa, explored the complex forces shaping global cities in an effort to understand the dynamism of India’s ever-changing urban centers. Held over three days at Kala Academy, one of Correa’s masterworks, the conference brought together speakers from different corners of the world to share their views with an audience eager to take an active role in India’s urban transformation.

The conference’s moderator, Pratyush Shankar, described cities as places of will, where people forge new identities. However, as he suggested in his opening speech, cities can also be understood as artificial environments (the city as a machine) and as civilizational symbols (the city as a cultural narrative). The role of architecture and urban design must therefore reflect the vibrancy of cities, not just shaping the physical realm but also regenerating the deeper tissues of cultural and economic manifestations.

The speakers’ approaches varied in scope: from culturally sensible, to proactive (either through government or at the hands of private organizations), to subversive. Benninger heightened the importance of making buildings that people can recognize as their own, whilst Somaya highlighted the value of defining a collective urban memory. Venhoeven addressed the issue of designing for the poor, and others like Adeyemi and Brillembourg approached architecture from the perspective of holistic development. Cirugeda set a clear stance, and vehemently insisted on reestablishing the citizen’s relationship with urban governance. From passive to militant all presentations pushed the limits of controversy, supported by an audience eager to get involved.

Great City… Terrible Place engaged students and professionals in intellectual discussions that will undoubtedly shape the urban future of India. Audience reactions ranged from inquiring about the role of design in the beautification of Indian cities, to very specific questions (and almost denunciations) on topics such as the impact of increased density along the Pune metro corridor, a proposed rail project in the Indian city. Summing up the conference, Brillembourg stated, “architecture parts from theory, [from] a hypothesis… without theory there is no backing for a building.” Urban development must revolve around process, enhancing the synergies that make cities thrive. Aesthetic beauty, rather than an objective, must come as a result of urban vibrancy. Indian cities today may not be stunning, but sure enough they are fascinating places of opportunity and cultural exchange. The challenge then is to reconcile a Great City to make it a Beautiful Place. As Santiago Cirugeda rightly said, “if you identify the functionality, beauty will come with time.”