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common critique that I have often encountered towards the idea of fragment and fragment urbanism is that it assumes a whole. The fragments in Colin McFarlane’s book, Fragments of the City, however are not composed of one but of many wholes that reveal themselves through excursions across several cities and space-times. The book invites its readers to learning from the fragment through an iteration of a larger archive of fragment urbanisms drawn from the author’s long-term engagements across the cities of Berlin, Delhi, Mumbai, Kampala, Hong Kong, New York, Glasgow, and London. While I have had the privilege to inhabit several of these cities, there is something quite unique to the juxtapositions McFarlane puts forth in the book. The book triggers comparisons through the juxtaposition of the fragments of past infrastructures such as the half-built elevated walkways in Newcastle (2021: 208), with the fragments of ongoing toilet and water politics in cities such as Namuwongo, Kampala (2021: 221), and the anticipatory potentials in the works of artists such as Vivian Sundaram (2021: 137). Fragments of the City is an excellent field guide into walking (and its limits) as a way of experiencing and appreciating the fragments of cities.
In setting out the main arguments of the book, McFarlane attempts to distinguish fragment urbanism with other proximate but distinct concepts such as splintering urbanism. As compared with these concepts, fragment urbanism closely refers to discontinuity, in both how it emerges as the product of a damaged urban world and as an unfolding process in which we can see possibility at work (McFarlane, 2021: 67).
Fragments of the City is a timely intervention with a wide cross-disciplinary resonance. In the book, McFarlane dwells upon the co-presence of fragments across the disciplinary registers of art, music, history, archeology, and the classics: “as a thing, a knowledge, an act, a process, a disruption, an invitation, and a form of expression” (2021: 67). McFarlane notes how fragments have been most associated with these fields, where they denote a piece of something, such as papyrus, granite, or land, or a form of knowledge, such as a way of seeing an issue or practice (2021: 65). I would like to take the liberty here to add additional associations from the fields of architecture and urban practice in addition to the ones featured in the book already. These associations have emerged from an acknowledgement of how cities are inherently made up of a manifold of wholes and fragments, and how architecture and spatial practice can recompose and generate new wholes from them. This is perhaps best typified in the 1977 project ‘Berlin: A Green Archipelago’ by OM Ungers, and Rem Koolhaas, and the famous 1943 ‘Potato Plan’ of London by Patrick Abercrombie. Such proposals often reflect the actual fragmented realities on the ground. While the fallows (brachen) shaped by the wartime destruction of Berlin have allowed for unintentional landscapes of urban nature to emerge (Gandy, 2016) in cities such as Delhi, fragments of the many historical and contemporary cities embody political potentials that lie yet latent.
The book however is not solely concerned with the exploration of material fragments, as McFarlane aptly reminds us; “the fragment is not only a noun, but also a verb, a thing, knowledge, act, process, and form” (2021: 74, emphasis added). McFarlane extensively dwells upon knowledge fragments (the relations in which the fragment is caught up), and drawing upon the work of William Tronzo, reminds us that fragments are not merely the remainders of wholes, but can also serve as “creation fragments” – taken from a context and used to force a new idea or sentiment (2021: 72). These discussions on knowledge and creation fragments are especially pertinent for museology and archives as I explore in a forthcoming book entitled Unearthing Traces, edited alongside Denise Bertschi and Julien Lafontaine Carboni. Recent critical discussions around the restitution of museum and archival objects such as the Benin Bronzes has pushed the discussion beyond the provenance of objects and into tracing the fragments of cities entangled with them.
The true promise of the book however lies in its exploration of writing in fragments, which it experiments with intensively both in terms of its style and content. In doing so, McFarlane draws inspiration from the works of Walter Benjamin, and positions himself in a tradition that has employed a pedagogy and writing in fragments. Much like Benjamin’s writings, which explored a montage of disjointed textual fragments imparting a cinematic quality to urban life and city transformation, McFarlane refuses linear narratives, instead weaving webs of the fragments of narratives. In my own experiments with ethnographic filmmaking, I have similarly explored the generative potentials of cinematic imagination (Bathla and Papanicolaou, 2021) as it emerges in co-constitution with ethnography. My 2020 film Not Just Roads co-directed with Klearjos Papanicolaou for example captures the fragments of everyday lives disrupted by rampant highway urbanization in India. Such writing in Fragments of the City, as McFarlane aptly notes on Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, “gave a sense of the cinematic quality of urban life and city transformation: the city as both coherent and fragmented, singular and radically multiple, permanent and fleeting, predictable and nonlinear, densifying and falling apart, ordered and disruptive” (2021: 88).
Moreover, McFarlane describes how “artistic experimentation with fragments can forge different registers of narration—in visual, tactile, and written encounters—that provocatively or playfully suggest alternative urban archives” (2021: 133). While this has been true for avant-garde movements such as the Dadaists, they also hold resonances with the emerging practices of socially engaged art (see Bathla and Garg, 2020; Vilenica, 2021). In my own long-term collaboration undertaken alongside artist Sumedha Garg and the women workers union Sakhi Kala Manch in Delhi, the fragments of textile waste (katran) have been brought together into tapestries mapping agrarian change, memory, and new imaginaries. As McFarlane aptly notes in the book, such experiments can help urbanists form new alliances, “help provoke conversations about the life and potentials of devalued places, feed into new urban imaginaries and possibilities, and promote alternative forms of social and spatial value” (2021: 166).
In closing, although the book is quite experimental in terms of how it juxtaposes the different fragments and helps provoke certain conversations, this could perhaps have been pushed even further through an experimentation with its graphic layout. Regardless, the book would strongly resonate far beyond its traditional urban studies readership with activists, artists, museum curators, archivists, and practitioners piecing together the fragments of cities. Furthermore, as McFarlane alludes to in a recent review roundtable for the Urban Political Podcast, the newfound openness of publishers and journal editors is an invitation for scholars to experiment with writing in fragments.
Bathla, N., Garg, S., 2020. Radical Encounters: Housing and Socially-engaged Art – An experiment from a tenement town at the periphery of Delhi. OASE 1.2, 10–25.
Bathla, N., Papanicolaou, K.E., 2021. Reframing the contested city through ethnographic film: beyond the expository on housing and the urban. International Journal of Housing Policy 0, 1–16.
Gandy, M., 2016. Unintentional landscapes. Landscape Research 41, 433–440.
Vilenica, A. (Ed.), 2021. Radical Housing: Art, Struggle, Care. Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam.
Nitin Bathla works as the coordinator the Doctoral Programme at the Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies, Department of Architecture, ETH Zürich. He actively combines academic research with artistic practices of filmmaking, and socially-engaged art; his 2020 film Not Just Roads co-directed with Klearjos E. Papanicolaou premiered at several important film festivals and was the recipient of SAH Film Award 2022.