The Design Observer Group

Posted 01.27.11

Alejandro Cartagena & Aaron Rothman

Fragmented Cities

Alejandro Cartagena first became aware of the effects of rapid urbanization in Monterrey, Mexico, when he was a teenager. Working at his parent’s restaurant in Ciudad Benito Juarez, which had until recently been a small town, he saw business boom, but also crime and corruption. He noticed that the open spaces that had been his childhood playgrounds were being invaded by row upon row of small single-family houses. He began photographing the growing city, documenting the quickly disappearing natural landscapes. His eye soon turned to the housing developments as well. Cartagena’s series, Fragmented Cities, presented here, explores the recent sprawl surrounding Monterrey, capturing the ubiquity and strangeness of these places as well as the uncomfortable way they occupy the landscape.


Over the past two decades, the twelve cities comprising the Monterrey metropolitan area have grown exponentially, creating a vast urban region of nearly four million. Ciudad Benito Juarez, for example, grew from 20,000 in 1990 to a current population of 200,000. This rapid horizontal expansion has been fueled by the usual real-estate suspects: cheap land, the efficiencies of production home building, the easy availability of mortgages for low and mid-income families (through the government-run lender Infonavit), the romance of home ownership, not to mention political corruption. The effects have been predictable: physical holes in the urban fabric, a hollowed-out city center, long commutes, air pollution. The housing developments in Cartagena’s photographs are generally lower-income. They are located far from established infrastructure, schools, transportation and retail. The residents, who mostly work in factories or as part of the underground economy, may have to walk several miles to reach a bus line. The houses are often less than 500 square feet, and sited on lots less than 800 square feet. It is hard to predict the future of these neighborhoods. In Cartagena’s photographs, they are new and empty — they look like a strange species of habitation, taken out of time.

— Aaron Rothman