Five Images of a City Without Buildings

Last week Vancouver was immersed in smoke from forest fires across Northern and Southern British Columbia. The smoke seemed to speak, without speaking, about our present uneasy condition. On this occasion, The Mainlander has decided to publish the long-delayed online version of a small chapbook, ‘Five Images of a City Without Buildings,’ originally published in 2012 by the artist collective coupe. The book had a short-run and was circulated at the Vancouver Art Bookfair that same year. This past fall, the Other Sights for Artist projects initiated a project called ‘Monument to Mysterious Fires,’ which began with this same premise as coupe’s text, and drew from some of the same archival photographs. Images of the Other Sights project can be found here.


Early Christmas morning, 2009, the property owner wakes up before the kids to burn down the local vitamin store. A few nearby studios are engulfed in flames. Under the combustible light of daybreak, he must now do paperwork to pass through the obligatory stages of law. The property owner, and the post-fordist economy of which he is a part, are the same age — the acronym FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) was first used in 1982.

alisha fire

In the arc of colonial destruction, nothing on the land is sacred. Vancouver’s Great Fire of 1878 is a founding myth because it teaches capital to thrive on the destruction of its own material existence. The origin of the city is the same as its incineration.

condo picture

An invitation to sabotage reads, “learn to burn.” Yet the message tells only half the story. It bemoans a city of unlimited real-estate and infinite tower blocks, but it leaves the market’s own logic of scarcity obscured.

With relations of production left unchanged, does this enflamed homage to scarcity not perform the monopolist’s bidding? The condo is the organism of a metropolis charred at birth. Its cinders are the signature of the monopoly developer known within myth as the entrepreneur.


Fire-writing registers the inner connection between the city of spectacle and the world as script. Unlike Franceso Rosi’s 1963 film, Hands over the City, there is no communist councillor to expose the wealthy arsonist. New growth is mistaken for spring. Yet posterity can detect that the revitalized landscape of the city was actually a nature morte.


The head of the city-state stands up to announce that the yearly risk of an over-built metropolis has been averted. The delegates of the development monopoly, having destroyed 1,000 units the previous year, return to the drawing board for another round of planned obsolescence. Prices kept high by means of premature demolition.


In a recent scenario, North Vancouver condo dwellers found their building had a price tag hovering above its head. The middle-bourgeoisie, struck by the spectre of its own dispossession, discovered that their lives were dispensable in the eyes of other financial overlords. Perhaps they were introduced to the idea that – when the conditions are right – condos do burn themselves.


A city, sowed between mountains and sea, is supposedly overrun by medieval foliate heads sprouting like weeds in summer. Smashed over the brain with this illusion of quantity, the law of enclosure escapes notice.

With the right variant of scapegoating – always pointed East – metaphors of Nature prove capable of obscuring the surgical operations of the homegrown rentier class. Hands on strings, suspended over the city, dissect the landscape with pin-point accuracy. “With the pin being a building,” to quote a revolutionary Vancouver poet.


The sitters on empty fields of speculative profit know alone that the shortage is an illusion. If primitive accumulation was once based on the myth of empty land, urban dispossession thrives on the zero-sum myth of over-saturation. A condo is a unit of scarcity, upheld financially by a sea of sprawling single-family homes. The nimby is a homesteader, a citizen of the desert on the pastoral frontier. Emptiness and scarcity are two sides of same the colonial coin.


Fashioned in the furnace of profit, the City of Vancouver churns out an increasingly enigmatic commodity-world that must enflame its own essence as a means of survival. In the Grundrisse, Marx defined capital as the smoke; the ghostly “being of its not-being.” Capital subtracts itself from itself, leaving behind the ashen shell of labour. The flames of this calamity have calmed into a rhythm, but they germinate unforetold negations. Negations-of-negations, torsions, folds. A subjectivity as ripe as it is unpredictable.