Occupied Theater Embros: Designing and Maintaining the Commons in Athens under Crisis

An interview with Eleni Tzirtzilaki

by Ursula Dimitriou

Translated from Greek by Mary Christou

Published in “Design and Political Dissent,Spaces,Visuals,Materialities”, edited by Jilly Traganou, Routledge Research in design studies, 2021.

The Free Occupied Self-Organized Theater Embros[i] is one of several urban commons[ii] that emerged in Athens in the context of the Greek financial and social crisis.[iii]  Since that period, discussions about urban commons have become widespread among city dwellers, as it was increasingly evident that the city’s public spaces and property was treated by the state as asset ready for exploitation and threatened with enclosure.

The commons, although an old word, is contested as a concept, simultaneously at the center of political discussion in contemporary social movements but, as Federici notes, also trendy among mainstream economists, capitalist planners and appropriated by the World Bank which puts it at the service of privatization.[1] Commons are considered to be the wealth of assets and resources collectively owned or shared between or among populations, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.[2] The shared resources can be both material, such as fisheries, water springs, public land, or immaterial, such as the human genome, the airwaves, the internet, etc.  In this interview we will follow De Angelis’ and Stavrides’ understanding, according to whom the commons involve three things at the same time: a common pool of resources (understood as non-commodified means of fulfilling people’s needs), a community to sustain them, and commoning as a verb, which is the social process that creates and reproduces the commons.[3]

As a space of commons, Embros Theater differs from other such places in Athens, such as the activist spaces that formed in Parko Navarinou or the park in Kyprou and Patission Street, in that the latter are open spaces, while Embros is taking shape inside a building. Thus Embros poses a number of dilemmas regarding the boundaries or specificities of the commoning practice, related to both its spatial realization and as an embodiment of the theoretical notion of the commons.

The building of Embros was originally an interwar printing house. It was listed as a historical building under the preservation law in 1989, and adapted to become a theater space during the same year, named Empros Theater, in order to host the fringe theater companyMorphes (1988-1999) founded by Tasos Bantis, Dimitris Katalifos and Rania Ikonomidou . Empros Theater closed in 2007, and when the state proposed the de-classification of the building and sale to private investors in 2011, a group of artists and local residents decided to intervene by occupying the building.[4]

I am here interviewing Eleni Tzirtzilaki[5], an architect, activist and founding member of the group Nomadic Architecture, about her participation in the occupation of the space of the former Embros Theater and its subsequent use as a space of commons named Occupied Theater Embros.[6] My conversation with Eleni brought us to our shared interest in commoning practices, the indeterminate distinction between commons and squats, between sharing spaces and sharing feelings, and the potential role of the architect in designing and practicing the commons.

The Activation of Embros

Ursula: Talk to us about the Occupied Theater Embros and your participation in the project.

Eleni: I was one of the initial participants of the occupation in 2011. It is actually better to use the term “activation” rather than “occupation,” as this is the term that we have used at the project since the beginning. Embros Theater was a building that remained unused for several years in the neighborhood of Psiri in downtown Athens. The thought of finding a way to reuse this building has been the subject of frequent discussions both among the Psiri residents and Nomadic Architecture[7] and the. Later as a member of the Mavili Initiative, [8] joined by inhabitants of the area, we proceeded to the activation of the theater, an act that was both artistic and political.Figure 1. First day of Embros Activation  on November 11, 2011. Photograph by Nikos Kazeros.


Figure 1b. Workshop and talk about the commons taking place at the main stage of the theater during the activation of Empros by the Mavili initiative in 2011. Photograph by Eleni Tzirtzilaki.

Ursula: How did the project start and why do you use the word “activate”? It seems to me that the term implies more than merely unlocking the building and entering the space.

Eleni: We actually did have to break into the space as it was locked. But the building was activated through a series of happenings (Figure 1). It started with a twelve-day artistic activity. The project had an artistic character since the beginning because of the Mavili Initiative, a collective mainly composed of theater artists. I also believe that the social climate and the urban conditions at the time were auspicious: the tension in Athens in the autumn of 2011, the occupation of the National Opera building,[9] and a range of events that followed the assassination of Alexis Grigoropoulos in 2008 brought the artistic community of Athens together. A lot of the artists who were part of the National Opera Occupation joined Embros. Soon, Embros became a cultural space. The activation performed by the Mavili Initiative had a quite intense experimental nature in the beginning and formed part of a quest for a political-artistic expression. In order for art to be political, it is not enough to discuss political matters, but also to offer another way of expression; a new methodology. This tendency continued and became more intense following the Mavili Initiative’s withdrawal from the project. The space opened up new opportunities for collective activities and new collaborations due to its numerous possibilities. It triggered constructive discussions, debates and experimentation. New art forms were suggested by all participants, and at the same time people were engaged in a quest for a different way of living. A number of performances took place at Embros, which back then was a relatively new art form in Athens.  It hosted many artistic activities, in which I participated, including poetry events with Syrian artists as well as activist and artistic activities performed by African women and immigrants from Afghanistan. Embros has also hosted experimental cultural-political festivals, discussing issues of biopolitics. A series of discussions took place during the workshops I organized, “Embros os kino agatho” [Embros as a common good] and “Ergastirio gia to kentro tis polis” [Workshop for the city center], that addressed issues concerning the center of Athens, where people decided to actively oppose any form of crisis management aiming at its re-mapping (Xenios Zeus,[10] Rethink Athens[11] etc). The crisis, the insecurity and the fear of police and state violence, and the economic and social instability all formed a new geography in Athens, and we initially pictured Embros as an open space for diversity in the city, as a shelter in a war zone.  Vulnerable artists, undocumented immigrants, queer people and vagabonds found their space here. 2012 and 2013 were years of creative juxtaposition and the space served as a shelter for the nomads of Athens. A Christmas meal event that we organized in 2013 was a representative example of this atmosphere, with high attendance and dynamism, as people forming a potential community gathered at the stage around a big table (Figure 2).  In this sense Embros started as a place where art met vulnerability.

Figure 2. A communal Christmas meal in 2013 taking place in the stage of the theater . Photograph by Eleni Tzirtzilaki.Figure 2. A communal Christmas meal in 2013 taking place in the stage of the theater . Photograph by Eleni Tzirtzilaki.

Ursula: Would you say that the artistic-political nature of the venture was also interlinked with the way the space was managed?

Eleni: Indeed it was. We strived to make Embros a common space. Our aim was to give it a commonality on a political and artistic level. To make it a common good. It is important to mention that shortly after its activation, the police tried to close it down and this is when the occupation of the theater was decided.  The number of participants increased drastically as more people joined. The place started to be managed by an open assembly. Thereafter, the assemblies of the theater were full of people and very important discussions took place. Unfortunately, I would say that there was a rather patriarchal approach right from the beginning of the assemblies, which is often the case in many assemblies in Athens. However, we would talk openly about it and organized different feminist and queer activities, in order to avoid this.

Ursula: So, how was the space managed in the beginning?

Eleni: In the beginning, the space was managed by the Mavili Initiative which was organizing artistic events and events in the city. Following its withdrawal, it switched to being run by an open assembly on the basis of self-management rotation (Figure 3). This meant that the management changed hands, i.e. one group was responsible for management this week, another one next week, etc. Basically, all work was shared within a space. The assembly would take place once a week and was open. We also agreed that anyone could come to Embros to organize an event, i.e. to suggest a performance, an exhibition, etc, and there were no exceptions to this rule. There would be a calendar and the suggestion would be logged in the calendar. We wouldn’t ask for a CV, nor would we be interested in finding out whether someone was a good — or rather say recognized — artist, given that the notion of “good” is quite vague. Unknown artists were also welcomed. In addition, Embros was not running any profit-making activities. Right from the beginning, we used a box to collect money for the maintenance of the space, or rather the expenses of the space. Everyone was free to contribute to this box with the amount of their choice.

Figure 3. Assembly gathering in the main theater space. Photograph by Eleni Tzirzilaki.Figure 3. Assembly gathering in the main theater space. Photograph by Eleni Tzirzilaki.

Ursula: What is the relation of Embros with the local community? Was it seen as resistance to gentrification?

Eleni: The inhabitants had already requested to the city council to reopen the space, so they were in favor of activating Embros from the beginning. For most of them, activating Embros was an act of opposition to the gentrification taking place in the area that started in 1998, when the governmental decree of land use regulation in the area took effect. This implementation dislocated artisanal enterprises, traditional workshops and inhabitants in favor of nightclubs, bars and cafes that were seen as a threat to the neighborhood. So initially, several events took place with the support of the inhabitants, many of whom participated in the activation and later on in the occupation. Even locals who were not involved were content that the space had finally re-opened and they supported the effort. They contributed by offering water, internet, food, as well as by joining our events and discussions, signing petitions to keep the place open, etc. A communal meal that Nomadic Architecture organized at the square of Psiri (within the framework of the Empros activation organized by the Mavili Initiative) had a very high attendance of locals, artists, vagabonds and artisans.

Ursula: The Embros website reads: “Embros, as a theater, differs from other squats or social-political oriented occupations towards which it remains in solidarity.” In what sense does it differ?

Eleni: Up until Embros started, squats in Athens were different. Villa Amalias and numerous other squats were mainly used for habitation. Events and happenings were taking place in these squats, but these were mainly addressed to a limited audience which was somehow involved in the squats. Embros was open, and since it was located in the city center, it was accessible to many different communities. It was open both by being available for public access and both by encouraging all minorities (of diverse ethnicities, sexual preferences, etc) to visit and participate in the project. We made numerous public calls and used posters and online posts. This is why we mainly tried to find a way to implement the idea of a common space. And for this reason we did not name it a squat, but Embros Free Occupied Self-Organized Theater.

Ursula: So, are you saying that other squats constitute a closed community whereas Embros was different? Would you like to explain this further to me? Was this common and open condition threatened at any point?

Eleni: Embros was not formed by a political anarchist group, but rather by politically-minded artists and habitants. So right from the beginning, we tried to make this open to many different groups in the city. This is a positive aspect of Athens; it hosts many different communities of incredible dynamics. Both the events and the assemblies were attended by an incredibly diverse audience. The situation changed with the organization of the Antifascist festival in Embros in 2015 and 2016. That organization was based on an approach used for big movement festivals, a program of preconceived performances and high demand in terms of stage lighting, scenery. Things also changed because many groups simply wanted to find a place to host their performance and avoid any involvement with the rest of the Embros community. This created a clear distinction between the audience, the performances, and the rave parties that started taking place at Embros, and high attendance at events started to be considered important and desirable. Gradually, Embros started to adopt this way of operation that was common “outside,” meaning standard commercial performance or entertainment venues, thus inhibiting the maintenance and further cultivation of an internal ecology where a new perception for art and life could be experienced, as was the case for a long time. Let me clarify that this way of operating described above did not happen via the assembly’s decision, but took place gradually. It might have been related to the fact that the venture reached a point of exhaustion. Maybe in the end such a condition of inclusivity cannot last forever… it has its limits. After four years, the inhabitants also progressively withdrew. This withdrawal was linked to the changing condition in the city center, as the crisis was deepening. The crisis is masked by an apparent tranquility, and by the increase of tourism, including the so-called “alternative” and cultural tourism that paid visits to Embros following its listing in Documenta 14 exhibition that took place in Athens, as well as to other artistic spaces in the city center. Based on the current situation, it seems that despite the diversity of the communities in the city center, there is no larger public that would support the social transformation and the volatile condition of the city center. In fact, quite the contrary.

Ursula: Are you suggesting that Embros, like any other commons, has an ephemeral character?

Eleni: I would say it had its limits rather than being ephemeral. I agree with what an article in e Blaumachen magazine claimed, that the various forms of ‘commons’ that are created today are not foreshadows of a ‘communist society,’ or ‘microcommunisms.’[12] Furthermore, the space was interacting with everything that was happening in the city. The current SYRIZA government[13] and its politics had a negative indirect impact on the space.

Ursula: SYRIZA was initially a movement party that created hope for an alternative movement politics. When were these hopes dashed?

Eleni: Yes, SYRIZA’s election in 2015, as the first government of the left in Greece, slowed down all actions of the movement. However, this slowing down was also related to the way some groups perceive the city and the commons. I think that there is still a lot of work to be done on the subject of self-management, commons and community.

Ursula: Are you suggesting that the space now decaying is related to two different things: first, to the socio-political condition in the city and the feeling of tiredness following the slowing down of movements that affected the entire city; and secondly, the fact that some of these explosive actions have an ephemeral character and as such cannot maintain this tempo for long?

Eleni: Yes. I believe that we came very close to the creation of a new language, but did not make it in the end. We wanted to create a language, a new unprecedented vocabulary that we sometimes felt related to. A language that would entail new aspects on politics and new methodologies on art. Quite frequently though, we would end up entangled in an all too common political debate that has remained nearly unchanged in terms of language since the post-civil war era in Greece,[14] an artistic approach that is trapped in petit bourgeois stereotypes, audience, and star actors. I think that an occupation with such a strong character has to accept its own limits. I personally suggested moving to other spaces. The rupture between us was further intensified by the fact that we stayed confined to the space of Embros, when we could have initiated further similar situations in the city a long time ago. This has been a frequent topic of discussion during the first assemblies, i.e. to create a network of artistic spaces-occupations-urban commons in Athens. People’s wishes were trapped in the specific space and hegemonic trends emerged.  

Ursula: So you wanted expansion.

Eleni: I wanted the venture to spread out. This happened later with the emergence of other spaces like the City Plaza,[15] the Immigrant’s Community Center,[16] and Communitism.[17] However, it is very difficult to make such situations last. Moreover, there were certain groups that managed to prevail within Embros as they had more experience and were united, whereas we, the group that started the Embros, were different from each other, and not necessarily sharing the same ideology.

Ursula: On June 7, 2015 during the workshop on the commons, you read a text titled “like any story under capitalism, especially in the state of exception, it reached its limits.”[18] In this text you explain the reasons you wanted to resign from Embros and you mentioned that the space is used by some as their own home, but yet again you characterized it as void.[19] Could there be an ideal intermediary situation, when discussing sociocultural spaces like Embros, between a home and a void space?

Eleni: This ideal is a space of commons. When people use this space as their emotional or symbolic home— as was the case for many, including me — they run the risk of feeling that this is their private space (even though as explained before, Embros was not used as a space of inhabitation). However, this feeling of ownership creates conflicts arising from territorial tendencies. The fact that so many people felt there at home created a lot of conflicts.

Ursula: There is a fine distinction between the notions of “feeling comfortable within a space” and “assuming it belongs to me.” I imagine that the initial objective of Embros was to make different groups feel comfortable within it but not to be seen as a home.

Eleni: Embros was not a home, but a borderless space. The problem was that they — actually we — made the space our home failing to respect the occupation’s nomadic character, and we were then trapped in this condition. Gloria Anzaldua speaks about a space that would serve as a bridge adding that it is essential to leave home and its illusory safety, if we want to try to create a community; however, there is a dual risk associated with this idea: integration and exclusion.[20]

Ursula: What is the difference between the commons and a familiar private space? How could the space acquire this sense of familiarity without creating an enclosure?

Eleni: A familiar private space does not entail a community, the commons does. A community is not merely a group of people. A community emerges through interactions, assemblies and sharing. I was just reading the book Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly by Judith Butler, which suggested that this can be achieved via events and performances.[21] Our bodies designed different assemblies and many of these bodies that met and designed the activities were particularly vulnerable. That could perhaps have indicated a way. But we had no experience to draw upon. We contacted Teatro Valle,[22] a similar space in Rome, Italy, and some similar spaces in Spain, as it was important to exchange experiences and ideas on the culture of a common space. The idea of self-management should be learned by people with relevant experience, such as the Zapatistas who have been putting self-management into practice for years. You can read, learn and try to implement. But this is not easy; it is something quite hard because we haven’t learned how to share. We had also started conversations along with a legal process to make the space common. But we finally left.  Some members in the assembly argued that it was not possible to create a community in the city center. They might have been right.

Ursula: Is this related to the way the space is managed or also to some ephemeral qualities that define the way one feels and inhabits a space like this?

Eleni: This might sound awkward to those not involved in such a space, but all these spaces are closely linked to emotions and the management of emotions.

Ursula: How do we allow an emotion to be developed without restricting it somehow? I am just trying to understand how you can develop this sense of familiarity with a tangible space of strong character without creating an enclosure. Would you say that this is a matter of education on the way spaces and feelings are managed?

Fig, 4. Symbolic wrapping of Embros in protest of its imminent closure on Νovember 25, 2012. Photograph by Nikos Kazeros.

Eleni: By developing activities within a space and channeling these emotions towards the activities and not towards competition. This is a key point for me. Furthermore we should ensure that everyone is given enough space. What I also mentioned to you about rotation and the open space is important. There are processes that are known to people who are involved in squats and common spaces and concern ways of learning how to participate in a cycle and share. In order for a space to be common, emotions need to be cultivated, so that the space can be common and not a void. Or to be more precise, to make the space neither a void, nor an enclosure. (Figure 4)

The Architecture of Embros

Ursula: How did this socio-political character of Embros relates to its particular three-dimensional space? Who made the spatial/designing decisions? What was changed, knocked down or created in relation to the initial space?

Eleni: There was a close relation between the socio-political character of the occupation and the three-dimensional space. The building was listed for conservation and featured many interesting architectural details. It is an important building in the city center of significant architectural value, a city monument or urban heritage. We didn’t want to change anything about the space. Any changes applied were temporary; we didn’t knock down any walls nor did we touchthe initial features of the building. Various situations, in particular the parties that started later on, caused a lot of damage to the building that now feels like a “void.”[23]

Ursula: What exactly do you mean when you mention that changes to the building were “temporary”?

Eleni: I mean work that was necessary for reasons of maintenance, as for example treating the stage with primer. Back then, when we first entered and activated the building, this space used to be a source of inspiration. Because it bore the aura of a significant, historic space; in keeping with the spirit of a Bauhaus building, a significant theater and an old printing house. The theater conversion was undertaken by two brilliant architects[24] who kept features like the old machines, the table in the middle of the background, as well as the spaces on the upper floor with the windows. The space had a quality that we tried to maintain as much as possible.

Ursula: You mentioned that there was an interaction between the space and the ephemeral nature of the events. How was this achieved from an architectural point of view?

Eleni: We tried to use the space for our events in an effort to bring out its very essence. An act that would take place around the table[25] could highlight the table itself such as the act with the shoemaker, a resident in the area, in 2013 (Figure 5). Acts taking place on the upper floors could highlight the windows, for instance. The reason for having a minimal intervention was in order to preserve, enhance and use the numerous capabilities of the spaces, i.e. the stage, the windows, the staircase, the bar and the top floor. There was also lighting put on the building’s façade. In the early stage, this dialogue with elements of the building itself resulted in events that activated certain spaces of the building.  

Figure 5. Performance by resident and shoe maker of Psiri district, using as stage the foyer of the theatre and featuring the table of Empros. Nomadic Architecture and the Stories of People, February 4, 2013. Photograph by Eleni Tzirtzilaki.

Figure 5. Performance by resident and shoe maker of Psiri district, using as stage the foyer of the theatre and featuring the table of Empros. Nomadic Architecture and the Stories of People, February 4, 2013. Photograph by Eleni Tzirtzilaki.

Ursula: So you adopted an approach which specified that each group could reside and activate the space in different ways, as long as it reverted back to its initial form when they were done.

Eleni: Indeed. To give you an example, there was an international artist at some point, who wanted to paint the whole stage white. We could not allow this, even though the artist said she would repaint the stage black, because the wall would lose its texture acquired through time.  We suggested using white papers to transform the space in a more temporary way, but she didn’t accept it and withdrew her activity.

Ursula: Who decided on the changes applied to the space? Was it part of the assembly’s conversation?

Eleni: Not exactly. Not everyone wants to be involved in design. Each working group had the capacity to decide what to do. We talked extensively about the aesthetics of the space and its significance. For the spatial changes we formed a team of three architects, three non-architects and a photographer and it was an open team, other people were free to join. We surveyed the building and had the building drawings reproduced by an artist. We loved and admired this building.

Ursula: What I have noticed is that in Greek we use two terms are used to translate the word “design”; a Greek-based one, schediasmos, and a Latin-based one, ‘design.’ Using this word, ‘design’ often has negative connotations when used in Greek. In the context of a commons, one would say derogatorily “We don’t do design here!,” denoting a divide between design as a commercial activity on the one hand, and activism or antiauthoritarian intention, on the other.  And as the role of the architect or any designer is deemed anywhere from unnecessary to a tool of capitalism, the spaces that are considered as anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment s (e.g. squats, co-operatives, and so on), at least in the western European context, adopt very specific aesthetics. These might vary from hippie to punk aesthetics or more recently to patterns that connote indigenous Latin American cultures. Is it possible that by adopting this position the space becomes more of a home for specific groups rather than an open platform, a common?

Eleni: Yes, the groups that up until now have been involved in squats do have this mindset. But I believe it needs to change.  We need to change. I think that suggestions about how to include architecture should be brought forward. In Embros we created a team of architects who intended to do various things and could implement different ideas over time. I can say that there were architectural and design ideas for the space right from the beginning. We worked hard on the space and its spatial features. Right from the beginning of the occupation, we highlighted the stage, the table in the foyer and the building’s façade through lighting, which constitutes a principle of design. Our perception at the time was that this would be a long and continuous process. This is contrary to the approaches you mentioned before, as I believe that there is a difference between maintaining and highlighting the features of a space on one hand and leaving it to decay, on the other. We thought that this is the preferable design approach as Embros was a listed historic building. Some extra work could have been done, such as a staircase that would lead to the terrace, a library, etc.

Ursula: And why was this work not done?

Eleni: There was no time. We spent four years there doing thousands of maintenance chores on a daily basis; there was no time for architecture. Also, all these projects required money that we didn’t have. The money collected in the box through donations was allocated to more collective activities and social assistance, rather than being invested in the space itself.  Indeed, it might be that commoning actions have to be ephemeral as architecture requires more time and money. There is still a possibility to do architecture, but since we easily ran out of time or money, this possibility is drained. What we did from an architectural point of view was to draw the floor plans, record which features were of architectural value and highlight these features, which is something very important in my opinion. The space had some original qualities and people who visited the space liked that. And maintenance comprises both design and functional decisions. 

Ursula: So, by disdaining design, there is somehow no thinking of maintenance either.

Eleni: Yes, because in reality design is an integral part of maintenance, and vice versa, and they cannot be performed by everyone. And because the practitioner who coordinates the maintenance of a building is the architect. So, the architects are needed along with other squatters, especially when the commons is based on pre-existing spaces of particular architectural interest, like the City Plaza, Rosa Nera squat in Chania (Crete)[26] which is in an amazing building, or Alexandra Avenue Refugee Camps.[27]

Ursula: So architecture, in its wider definition, from taking care of urban space to designing, detailing and maintaining, can play an important role to the commoning practices. What is needed so that the current mindset about the relationship between design and the commons changes, and a more conscious implementation of design is achieved?

Eleni: This could happen through initiatives. If we don’t change our mindset, the current situation won’t change either. First of all, we should see whether the Municipality could offer some financial support. I am not opposed to this, although it is sometimes seen as an impediment to the autonomy of the project.[28] Then, we would need some architects — ideally actively involved in the space — as well as an assembly or a team involved in the space to put the project forward. There was a team from the Greek Association of Architects (SADAS) that wanted to help Embros and I was in support this idea, even after I had withdrawn from Empros. But they were not allowed by the assembly to intervene. Nevertheless, I do believe that architects’ involvement in the commons is of paramount importance even if currently it is very difficult.  Architects have to get involved with the commons and must have the will to find the right way as they do so.

Ursula: Do you think that commons can be designed?

Eleni: I think that they need to be designed collectively, from all the people involved in them. What happened in Embros was for me the beginning of an effort to design common space by the participants and not by an outsider.

Ursula: Why are improvisation and collective design methods that are considered compatible with self-management but design undertaken by a single designer is not? Could the Zapatistas principle of rotational office be applied in design? Would it be possible to have an individual but rotating designer working on the project, instead of a designer who follows the decisions made by the community?

Eleni: No, this would not work. The goal in a common space or in an occupation/squat is to always have a collective process in place, in every venture. For me collective designing is the way forward.  An architect is allowed to talk about or present their individual drawings in the collective assembly. But when work is done to the space, this should be a result of collective work. Anything that happens in the space should change hands and not be performed by the same person. Back then, we said that we all need to try and acquire some knowledge, even on technical issues, so that we could have a rotational process in place.

Ursula: Would you consider it hegemonic if an individual was placed in charge of the design for a part of the whole space?

Eleni: Yes, it would be authoritarian and hegemonic and would bring unpleasant results. Because by following this design approach we would revert back to the self, and ignore the community. For a good result you would need to share the space and its design between the architects and the space users.

Ursula: It seems to me that in this approach aesthetics are not considered part of architectural expertise but a collective domain. Can this collective design process result in a dynamic aesthetic project or would it always end in compromise?

Eleni: On the contrary, creating Embros was forward-thinking, in terms of the actual design and the discussions that took place there about the city, the void and the common spaces, all these are aspects of architecture. The fact that we activated and then occupied this space was a pioneering movement.

Ursula: What do you think will happen to Embros? 

Eleni: I would like to believe that new communities will continue to emerge within Embros via relations of solidarity. On November 19, 2014, Embros proposed and organized an event for Syrian refugees at Syntagma Square, where poems and texts in different languages were read. Antihierarchical forms were born in the past by groups of immigrants, people of the queer community, feminists, actors/actresses, etc. I would like to end with a quote from the Zapatistas: “We are like birds, flying to all places, but we need trees to rest. Autonomy is the most important principle for the future. Let’s fight from the bottom up with discipline, camaraderie and unity, let’s learn how to see and be seen, let’s do our own thing, let’s take control of the fate of our struggle by building autonomy…”[29]



Anzaldua, Gloria and Ana Louise Keating. This Bridge we call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Archeologia tis polis ton Athinon (Αρχαιολογία της πόλης των Αθηνών) (Archaeology of the city of Athens). “Προσφυγικές Πολυκατοικίες (Refugee Multihousing Units).” Archeologia tis polis ton Athinon, Accessed August 11, 2019. http://www.eie.gr/archaeologia/gr/arxeio_more.aspx?id=1.

Blaumachen, “Περι Κοινων (Concerning the Commons).” Blaumachen 06, Spring 2013, Athens, republished in Indymedia. Accessed August 10, 2019. https://athens.indymedia.org/media/upload/2018/07/31/Περί_Κοινών.pdf.

Bollier, David. “Imagining a New Politics of the Commons.” On the Commons, accessed June 24, 2019, http://www.onthecommons.org/imagining-new-politics-commons#sthash.Z6pNqKCK.KQ180MPY.dpbs.

Butler, Judith. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

City Plaza. “Refugee Accommodation and Solidarity Space.” Accessed August 11, 2019.  http://solidarity2refugees.gr/

Daravanche, Guillaume, ed. Αυτοδιαχείριση μια ιδέα πάντα επίκαιρη (L’Autogestion: une idée toujours neuve / Self-Management: An Always New Idea). translated by Theodoris Ditsas and Kostas Spatharakis. Athens: Ekdosis ton Sinadelfon, 2015.

De Angelis, Massimo and Stavros Stavrides. “On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides,”E-Flux, no. 17 (June 2010), accessed August 11, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/17/67351/on-the-commons-a-public-interview-with-massimo-de-angelis-and-stavros-stavrides/

Dimitriou, Orsalia. “The Politics of Public Space and the Emergence of the Commons in Contemporary Athens.” PhD diss., Goldsmiths University of London, Department of Visual Cultures, 2016.

Dimitriou, Orsalia. “Whose Commons? Challenges of commoning practices in an Athenian public space,” TRANSLOCAL. Culturas Contemporâneas Locais e Urbanas, no. 1 (2018) pp. 66-76.

Empros Elefthero Aftodiahirizomeno Theatro (Ελεύθερο Αυτοδιαχειριζόμενο Θέατρο (Empros Free Self-managed Theater). Accessed November 11, 2019. https://www.embros.gr/.

Federici, Silvia. “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.” Wealth of the Commons. Accessed August 10, 2019. http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/feminism-and-politics-commons

Kinisi Mavili. Accessed August 11, 2019. http://kinisimavili.blogspot.com/.

Nomadic Architecture Network. Accessed August 11,2019. http://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/en/.

Nomadic Architecture. Walking through Fragile Landscapes. Athens: Futura, 2018.

Rosa Nera Squat. Accessed August 11, 2019. https://rosanera.squat.gr/.

Steki Metanaston – Kinoniko Kentro (Στέκι Μεταναστών – Κοινωνικό κέντρο)(Immigration Hang Out – Community Center). “Δέκα χρόνια ιστορίας (Ten years of history)”. Accessed August 11, 2019. https://tsamadou13-15.espivblogs.net/about/.

Teatro Valle Occupato. Accessed August 11, 2019. http://www.teatrovalleoccupato.it/.

Tzirtzilaki, Eleni. “About the Free Self-managed Embros Theater.” Nomadic Architecture Network. Accessed August 11, 2019. http://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/en/texts-en/about-the-free-self-managed-embros-Theater/.

[1] Silvia Federici, “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” The Wealth of the Commons, accessed August 10, 2019, http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/feminism-and-politics-commons.

[2] David Bollier, “Imagining a New Politics of the Commons,” On the Commons, October 9, 2010, accessed June 24,2019, http://www.onthecommons.org/imagining-new-politics-commons#sthash.Z6pNqKCK.KQ180MPY.dpbs.

[3] Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides, “On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides,” E-Flux, no. 17 (June 2010), accessed August 11, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/17/67351/on-the-commons-a-public-interview-with-massimo-de-angelis-and-stavros-stavrides/.

[4] Hara Tzanavara, “I Ponemeni Istoria tou Emrpos” (Η πονεμένη ιστορία του Εμπρός) (The painful story of Empros),  Efimerida ton Sintakton (Eφημερίδα των Συντακτών) (), March 6, 2016, accessed December 24, 2019, https://www.efsyn.gr/nisides/mnimeia-tis-polis/61226_i-ponemeni-istoria-toy-empros; Iro Kounadi, Ηρώ Κουνάδη,”Empros: Ena Theatro gia Olous” (Εμπρος: Ένα θέατρο για όλους) (Empros: A Theater for All),  March 12, 2013, accessed December 24, 2019, https://www.in2life.gr/culture/theatre/article/269029/empros-ena-theatro-gia-oloys.html; Γιάννης Μόσχος, Η δραστηριότητα του θεατρικού οργανισμού «Μορφές» στο θέατρο Εμπρός (1988-99): μια χαρτογράφηση της ιστορίας του θιάσου και μια πρώτη αποτίμηση των παραστάσεών του και της πρόσληψής τους από την κριτική April 7, 2015, http://ejournals.lib.auth.gr/skene/article/view/4931.

[5] Eleni Tzirtzilaki is an architect and community artist. She was member of the group Astiko Keno (Urban Void) from 1998 to 2005, and founded the Nomadic Architecture Network (http://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/) in 2005. She organizes actions that integrate a variety of art expressions, including walking, performance, poetry, painting and writing. Her work focuses on nomadic subjects; their actions, relations and materiality as they traverse borders, their involvement with each other and with residents, and with the creation of ephemeral communities.

[6] The interview took place in June 2018.

[7] Information about Nomadic Architecture can be found at: Nomadic Architecture. Walking through Fragile Landscapes. Athens: Futura, 2018, and Nomadic Architecture Network, accessed August 11,2019, http://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/en/.

[8] Information about the Mavili Initiative can be found at: Kinisi Mavili, accessed August 11, 2019, http://kinisimavili.blogspot.com/.

[9] On January 30, 2009 the building of the National Opera was occupied for nine consequent days in solidarity to the rest of the protests in Athens. During the occupation the participants run a different cultural program with revolutionary character in opposition to the institutionalized culture. 

[10] Xenios Zeus is the name of an anti-immigration operation of the Greek police- using paradoxically the name of the ancient Greek god of hospitality.

[11] Rethink Athens was a 2014 European Architectural Competition for the creation of a new city center in Athens organized and funded by a private foundation (the Onassis Foundation).

[12] Blaumachen was an anarchist magazine published both on paper and online (blaumachen.gr) and circulated in anarchist spaces. They only published few issues and is now inactive  According to Blaumachen, commons today “are alternative forms of managing the social reproduction of the proletariat within capitalism, and as such they are integrated with the rationale of capitalism, as a positive elaboration of its own categories, even when they expressively question and are directed against it.” Blaumachen, “Περι Κοινων” (Cocerning the Commons), Blaumachen 06, Spring 2013, Athens, republished in Indymedia, accessed August 10, 2019, https://athens.indymedia.org/media/upload/2018/07/31/Περί_Κοινών.pdf 

[13] The interview took place in 2018 when SYRIZA was still in power. On July 2019 the conservative right-wing party Nea Dimokratia was elected to power.

[14] The Greek civil war lasted from 1946 to 1949 and took place between the Greek government army and the Democratic Army of Greece that was the military branch of the Communist Party of Greece. Political commentators see a return of this polarization in today’s politics..

[15] City Plaza, Refugee Accommodation and Solidarity Space was an occupation of an empty hotel in the center of Athens that began in April 2016 and ended in July 2019. There has been a strong association between Embros and City Plaza as they had numerous common participants. For more information see:  City Plaza, Refugee Accommodation and Solidarity Space, accessed August 11, 2019, http://solidarity2refugees.gr/.

[16] Steki Metanaston (Immigrants’ Community Center) is a self-managed space in the area of Exarcheia in Athens that is hosting activities for and with immigrants. It has been the target of many racist attacks. More information in: Steki Metanaston – Kinoniko Kentro (Στέκι Μεταναστών – Κοινωνικό κέντρο) (Immigration Hang Out – Community Center), accessed August 11, 2019, https://tsamadou13-15.espivblogs.net/about/.

[17] According to their Facebook page, Communitism is an “open community .. that revives abandoned or under-utilized cultural heritage buildings transitioning them into cultural commons entrusted and operated by active communities.”  https://www.facebook.com/pg/communitism/about/?ref=page_internal

[18] Eleni Tzirtzilaki, “Όπως κάθε ιστορία στον καπιταλισμό και μάλιστα στην κατάσταση εξαίρεσης, είχε τα όρια της” https://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/texts/όπως-κάθε-ιστορία-στον-καπιταλισμό-κα/

[19] Eleni Tzirtzilaki, “About the Free self-managed Embros Theater,” Nomadic Architecture Network, last modified November 6, 2015, http://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/en/texts-en/about-the-free-self-managed-embros-Theater/.

[20] Gloria Anzaldua and Ana Louise Keating, This Bridge we call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).

[21] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 2018).

[22] Teatro Valle Occupato is a state Theater in Rome that was occupied in 2011 by a group of protesters consisting of actors, musicians, directors, technicians, and creative staff in opposition to its closure and planned sale to private investors. Teatro Valle Occupato, accessed August 11, 2019, http://www.teatrovalleoccupato.it/

[23] Eleni uses the Greek word keno (void), to contrast with the word kino (common).

[24] The two architects who undertook the conversion of the printing factory to a theater in 1989 were Takis Frangoulis and Antonis Daglidis..

[25] Eleni refers here to the original large table made of marble, wood and iron that features in the theater’s foyer.

[26] For information about Rosa Nera see Rosa Nera Squat, accessed August 11, 2019,  https://rosanera.squat.gr/. 

[27] For Alexandra Avenue Refugee Housing Units see: Archeologia tis polis ton Athinon (Αρχαιολογία της πόλης των Αθηνών )(Archaeology of the city of Athens), “Προσφυγικές Πολυκατοικίες (Refugee Multihousing Units)“, Αρχαιολογία της πόλης των Αθηνών, accessed August 11, 2019, http://www.eie.gr/archaeologia/gr/arxeio_more.aspx?id=1

[29] Guillaume Daravanche, ed., Αυτοδιαχείριση μια ιδέα πάντα επίκαιρη (L’Autogestion: une idée toujours neuve)(Self-Management: An Always New Idea), trans. Theodoris Ditsas and Kostas Spatharakis (Athens: Ekdosis ton Sinadelfon, 2015).

[i] Empros Elefthero Aftodiahirizomeno Theatro (Empros Free Self-managed Theater), accessed November 11, 2019, https://www.embros.gr/.

[ii] I have written extensively about Athens’ urban commons in my PhD dissertation and publications: Orsalia Dimitriou, “The Politics of Public Space and the Emergence of the Commons in Contemporary Athens.” (PhD diss. London: Goldsmiths University of London, Department of Visual Cultures, 2016) and Orsalia Dimitriou, “Whose Commons? Challenges of commoning practices in an Athenian public space,” TRANSLOCAL. Culturas Contemporâneas Locais e Urbanas, no. 1 (2018).

[iii] On May 25, 2011, peaceful demonstrations started in Athens and other major cities, opposing the new austerity measures proposed by the government, in the same spirit as the 2011 Spanish Indignados. Following tactics similar with those used by the movement of the squares in various places worldwide, the movement of Aganaktismeni (Indignated) occupied Syntagma square, a main square in front of the Greek parliament, and set a protest camp there that lasted for 3 months. This new wave of social insurgence had begun in December 2008 when a police officer on duty murdered Alexis Grigoropoulos, a fifteen year old  high school student, in the Exarchia area of Athens. The initial demonstration against alleged police incompetence and brutality quickly escalated to widespread urban insurgencies in Athens and numerous other Greek cities. Besides Embros, other common spaces that emerged in Athens at the same period are Navarino park, the park in Kyprou and Patission Street, and Green Park.