Urban voids

By Eleni Tzirtzilaki

Without a proper noun, Laura Lovatel- Federica Menin, Lupo Burtscher, Bolzano, November, 2014

The city of Athens is living in a state of exception[2], where the precarious conditions are tangible at any level in the city and where a new generation of urban voids, spaces which are abandoned on a daily basis, has increased. Abandoned plots with undefined ownership, non-utilized archaeological sites, abandoned factories, abandoned office buildings, empty shops, and abandoned public buildings such as theatres and schools are becoming more and more common. An urban void can often be an entire area, such as the one around Theatrou Square, an area called Gerani, or an entire neighbourhood like the Prosfygika buildings Complex on Alexandras Avenue. 

Urban voids as xώρος εν δυναμει[1].

These undefined sites, generated by the city through its transformation are mostly invisible. However, they are transformed into visible spaces, fluid and unpredictable, thus acquiring significance as dynamic spaces, through ephemeral and temporary use in Athens during its current state of exception. Dynamic spaces refer to a dimension where the potential ability of the body – singular and collective body – to perform, can find its place, becoming space itself, generating unpredictable movements of self organization and expression[3].

Authoritarian strategies are increased in order to obstruct the proliferation of new dynamic spaces through the militarization of public space and the heavy restructuring of the Athens center. Violent operations like the Xenios Zeus[4] are constituting the perpetuation of a state of exception where the increase of the power structures the government employs in supposed times of crisis supersede and reject questions of citizenship and individual rights in the process, by claiming this extension of power by the government itself. In parallel, urban projects like the current Rethinking Athens[5] is proposing the reconfiguration for the city centre through the creation of a huge boulevard on Panepistimiou, an idea that has no affinity with contemporary Athens, a city which formed through addition and removal and it is defined by an significant dis-order as a Mediterranean capital[6].

It is possible to recognize a wide strategy which is using force and violence to control the bodies and the spaces of Athens. Within that situation, the political dimension of the urban voids becomes clear as it becomes even more important that they remain vaguely defined and continue as dynamic spaces distant from a clear legal status or specific designated use[7].

The fast increase of urban voids is a new phenomenon due to the crisis, as it is their varied use by urban wanderers, document-less homeless, those who live a precarious existence, movements and political groups, activists and artists. Actions and situations, which take place in urban voids, might display new forms of life through the performative body.

Urban voids are spaces where demonstrations, creation of community gardens and occupations are continuing to happen. The bodies are constituting spaces of solidarity through their gestures and are redefining a political dimension moved from the desire to transform together the city. The leap from urban voids to dynamic spaces might involve the question about how to think and build together a desirable city.

An alternative survival route in Athens within a state of emergency.

The creation of community gardens in urban voids – such as Navarinou Park[8] in an empty site in Exarchia district, the self-organized Kyprou and Patision Park, which were all designated as parking lots, as well as other urban voids such as the garden on Asomaton Street (foto 1-2-3-4-5) may be considered to be a contribution of urban movements, neighbourhood congregations and inhabitants regarding the transformation of urban voids into a sort of social third landscape[9], a process of self determination of the city already began before the crisis explosion and the mobilizations of 2008[10].

Also, these initiatives are showing a new spatial culture which is forming in Athens.

The site on Asomaton Street is an inactive archaeological site which, starting from the winter 2012, has been transformed into a collective garden by the Neighbourhood Movement of Psirri together with a group from the neighbouring occupied theatre Empros.

The intention of the group for the site was for it to be a space for congregation and cultivation of diversity through the medium of planting and gardening. The site was found abandoned, without fences and there was no information regarding the archeological excavations. Participants included the natural farming team Nea Guinea[11], as well as people who had found out about the initiative through social media. The plot was cleared of weeds, and rocks were piled to form mounds. A seeding was made and as well as a compost heap.

To avoid damage to the archaeological site they ensured that no planting went below 40 cm. The garden was intended to be accessible to all to allow the use of its “fruits” as well as to introduce about land cultivation – especially to the children of the neighbouring junior school. In August 2012, the Greek Archaeological Service destroyed the park by uprooting the planted vegetation.

Another urban void, still active as a small garden is the one on Tsamadou Street in the Exarhia district. It is located in front of the Steki Metanaston[12], a social centre for immigrants, and is a meeting and leisure point for them as well as for other people.

The Free Self-Organized Empros Theatre in the Psirri district sits amongst the urban voids of the Athens center. It was an abandoned printing house, which was first occupied in 2011 by the Mavili collective[13] and by local inhabitants (Neighbourhood Movement  of Psirri) for one year. Afterwards it started functioning as an occupied space and holds open assemblies every Sunday. It embodies the concept of a common space in the centre of the city and it supports artistic, social and political forms of expression.

Prosfygika Complex on Alexandra Avenue: an urban void is transformed into an occupied shelter.

Ambelokipi area, where the Prosfygika Complex is placed, is a lively district in central Athens .

This district is home to a complex (Prosfygika) to address a severe housing crisis due to the so called Smyrna catastrophe[14]. This group of buildings is not only evidence of the State’s engagement in housing at the time, but also an example of modernity that animated Greek architecture in the 1930s. The Prosfygika Complex was built between 1933-35, in order to house refugees from 1922.

It consists of 8 apartment blocks (228 apartments) with a vertically repeated floor plan running parallel to Alexandras Avenue. The buildings are a clear example of modern ordered planning. The project was developed by the architects Kimon Laskaris, who worked in Paris with Henri Sauvage, and Dimitris Kyriakos, from the technical service in the Ministry of Welfare[15]. The buildings were intended for people in a state of emergency and the architects aimed to maximize sunlight, ventilation as well as open-air and common spaces within the minimum possible dimensions following the rules of a rationalization of the space.

The buildings’ façades endured the Civil War (1944), numerous earthquakes and a lack of maintenance, due to economic difficulties of the homeowners.

Many refugees, mostly coming from Afghanistan, Turkey and Syria, most of them homeless, live there together with the few remaining owners.

The buildings bear the signs of their age, but they are intensively lived in and bustling with activity such as children playing, clothes hanging, people on the balconies and the sound of radio programs in different languages. Though, most of the open spaces are used as parking lots by the citizens of other areas of the city and this is a pressing issue within the Prosfygika.

The Prosfigika Complex is deeply connected to powerful memories of the Resistance. Bullet holes scar the buildings from December 1944 when many ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) fighters took shelter there and the buildings were shelled by the British from Lycabetus hill.

The apartments, today modified through minimal occupying operations, are maintaining the status of dynamic spaces. They are nests for people. People, like birds, know they may find themselves elsewhere.

For the past three years, refugees have been maintaining the buildings in cooperation with the few owners and other people through weekly assemblies. Without them, they might have no longer existed since, despite the decision of the Central Archeological Council (KAS) in 2009 for them to be listed and preserved as a contemporary monument, they had been left to fall apart from the State.

As it says in one of the Prosfigika Assembly’s report (2012): “Our narrative for the Prosfigika neighbourhood, speaks about a struggle for dignity and survival…The group’s priority is to enliven and redefine the neighbourhood as an occupying community.[16]“.

For years now the area of Ambelokipi has been one of the most popular sites for construction companies and gentrification type agendas. Since 1986, the wider area of the Kountouriotikon, of which Ambelokipi is part, has been zoned as an Area for Regeneration by the Athens Regulatory Plan. It is in that moment that the first attempts to exchange the apartments of Prosfigika Complex with other housing occurred in that time and was received with resistance by the inhabitants.

In 2001 under the pretext of the Olympic games, the Hellenic Public Real Estate Corporation (KED) bought 137 apartments under the threat of demolition of the buildings, blackmail and targeted intimidation. Inhabitants were asked to “voluntarily” transfer their apartments to the public, or otherwise face obligatory expropriation.

About 40 apartments were expropriated in 2003 by the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Climate Change (YPEKA) under a plan for “regeneration” which included the operation to lower the level of the street Alexandras Avenue. About 51 apartments have remained with their original owners. The purpose of the YPEKA operation, was to demolish 6 of the 8 blocks of apartment buildings in order to create supposed “open green spaces”, a plan which was cancelled after appeals, assemblies and demonstrations by the citizens of Ambelokipi and the School of Architecture of Athens (NTUA). The architect and professor Anny Vrichea was a fundamental figure in this effort, during the struggles and demonstrations occurred[17].

In 2004 the façade of the buildings was draped with a large fabric in order to maintain the superficial decor of the Olympic Games. From this moment on the apartments have slowly begun to be appropriated by people, mostly refugees, homeless, and unemployed. The occupation in fact happened after the Olympic Games and especially in recent years. The self-organization of the neighbourhood’s bakery, infirmary, communal kitchen, maintenance office, care system and school classes for children, are set up and managed through weekly assemblies. The Prosfygika neighbourhood is a focal point for the struggle for self-organization and solidarity as well as for imaginary and physical reality, as the meaning of community is redefined through the transformation of the neighbourhood into a new community. Following the threads of the ideas concerning the Third Landscape, we can consider the example of Prosfigika as a “dynamic third dwelling” type in Athens.

On the 11th of March 2014, 138 apartments from the Prosfigika Complex were transferred to the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund Company[18], intended for sale. Occupants, most of which are refugees, will have to fight for their homes. A broad effort for the defence of their homes is called for. The occupied Prosfygika Complex is about the right to shelter, community and the right to life for those who find themselves with a bare life. Under the present conditions, we are called to defend the past and present of Prosfygika and the people who live there. This space as an urban void and collective dwelling experience consists of a social and cultural workshop for new spatial relations and binding centre for the “imaginative community”[19].

In June 2014  the Anti-fascist Performing Art festival[20] took place in the Prosfygika Complex.  The festival was central in revealing this neighbourhood as emblematic of the Athens’ current situation.

In the context of the festival an action/workshop took place for “Designing a playground area with recycled materials and planting” by the group Nomadiki Arxitektoniki in collaboration with the architecture collective Saligari[21].

During the two days action, children were encouraged to draw, imagine and explore what they envisaged for the gap spaces of Prosfigika, which are their day to day playground. A carpet was used as a work-space with colours, palettes, cardboard and pencils. On the second day trees were planted and a dragon toy was made using recycled car tires. The playground was made with minimal intervention.

In my opinion, actions such as these reveal the potential of the space and it’s particularities, strengthen the community, intensify the right to the city[22] and bring to light the fact that the struggle for the survival of urban voids and their transformation into dynamic spaces is a pressing issue for architecture and the arts.

Architecture and art may represent performative actions as an alternative to existing models. In the process politics is made and performative and new forms of social relationship are developed.

The Prosfigika complex, the self organized Empros theatre, the community gardens among others, create a peculiar route within the city of Athens. As dynamic spaces, they represent together the trembling dynamic of contemporary Athens. Dynamic spaces are not stable, they change constantly and are framed by their own movements and their place is nor in light nor in shadow. Many of them can disappear, as it was for the Asomaton community garden, but there will always be new incoming ones. The dynamic spaces, χώροι εν δυνάμει in Greek, shouldn’t be regulated or fix under a certain label or law, as they escape a fixed definition. These dynamic spaces are like current shelters, they are our answer to the crisis and its violence. They represent a resistance to the prevailing system, generating as resistance an intellectual critique, embodied in the space and in the use of it, suggesting new forms and way of living, as well as becoming communities.


Athanasiou Athina, Performativity and Precarity – Judith Butler in Athens (in Greek),

Nisos, Athens 2011

Butler Judith, A chi spetta una buona vita, Nottetempo politica, Roma 2013 (Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life), in: Radical Philosophy. Adorno Prize Lecture, September 11, 2012.


Eleni Tzirtzilaki is an architect and artist.

She is one of the founder members of the collective Urban Void and since 2005 part of Nomadiki Arxitektoniki (Nomadic Architecture Network)-an open research laboratory founded in 2005 that deals with issues of gender, ethnicity and marginalization in public space, as well as with cases of territorial and demographic crisis due to displacement, in particular in athens. www.nomadikiarxitektoniki.net.

She published: Ektopismenoi, astikoi nomades stismitropoleis Sygxrona zitimata gia ti metakinisi ti poli kai ton xoro, (Displaced urban nomads in metropolises. Contemporary issues on city and space), Nissos Edition, 2008. Akouo tis meres aftes tin Athina, (I hear Athens these days), Gavriilidis Editions, 2013.

She is part of the assembly of the Free Empros theatre and of the collective menychiakaimedontiawordpress.com


[1] Xώρος εν δυναμει has been translated in English for this text with dynamic spaces.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Stato d’eccezione, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2003. Agamben’s State of Exception  investigates how the suspension of laws within a state of emergency or crisis can become a prolonged state of being, allowing pure violence.

[3]  Xῶρος – khôros – in Greek means space, place, room, dwelling space and from this word derives χορός • khorós which means dance but also space for dancing;  εν δυνάμει – en dýnamis – from dýnamai, able, having ability – properly, ability to perform.

On performativity within the public space, struggles and Capital geographies, see more in the text: Eleni Tzirtzilaki, Asylo Astegon, efimerida Avgi, Enthemata, Athens 30 March 2014.

[4] Xenios Zeus is a military operation started in 2012 aiming to crack down on irregular immigration and crime in Athens. Since the start of the operation, tens of thousands of people presumed to be undocumented migrants have been subjected to abusive stops and searches on the streets and detention at police stations.  http://nodetention.blogspot.gr/.

[5] http://www.rethinkathens.org/eng/home . From the paper red at the Workshop on the Present State of the Urban Center of Athens: ‘Rethink Athens’ proposes the transformation of the city center by means of turning Panepistimiou St. into a boulevard. The concept of the boulevard itself is altogether foreign to contemporary Athens, a city that is the product of successive additions and eliminations, whose charmingly chaotic landscape is typically Mediterranean. The proposal that won first prize in the competition hopes to address the problems that face contemporary Athens by planting trees and building fountains, which would compromise the particular appeal of  a street that is a foil for an array of different urban qualities and tensions. Panepistimiou St., a main artery for most protest marches in Athens, is currently ‘pedestrianized’ by the bodies of protesters themselves as opposed to fountains and trees. Moreover, one cannot but point out the fact that no fountain is presently running in downtown Athens, that all public lavatories are closed and that benches are being removed so that the homeless cannot use them as beds. Source: http://nomadikiarxitektoniki.net/en/english-a-workshop-on-the-present-state-of-the-urban-center-of-athens/

[6]  Christos Filippidis, Poli, Krisi kai Pyromeno sidero (City, crisis and hot iron), Futura Publications, Athens 2014.

[7] The collective Astiko Keno/Urban Void, formed by architects and artists, focused intensively between 1998 and 2005 on the ephemeral use of urban voids in Athens. Actions like walking, reading of texts and other everyday activities were organised by the group at selected locations. Through ephemeral occupations, Astiko Keno tests the relationship between sites and citizens in the urban environment.  See more:  HYPERLINK “http://urbanvoidathens.wordpress.com/”http://urbanvoidathens.wordpress.com/ Astiko Keno, Actions 1998-2005, Futura Publications, Athens 2007.

[8] About Navarinou Park, the Commons and the case of Athens in particular is suggested the reading of the text: On the Commons: a public interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides, e-flux journal n.17, June-August 2010.

[9]     The concept of the Third Landscape was introduced by botanist and architect Gilles Clement through the book Manifeste du Tiers Paysage in 2003. Third Landscape refers to a undefined dimension which belongs “neither to the domain of light neither to the one of shadow”. Residual and derelict spaces are intended as a Third Landscape, whose importance is to support biodiversity allowing new forms of coexistences between plants.

[10] About the actions and riots raised in 2008: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Greek_riots, and by URBAN ANARCHY: Athens Unfortified City – Spatial Analysis of the Uprising of December 2008, Thessaloniki, Urban Anarchy 2010.

[11] See more at: http://neaguinea.org/.

[12] It has been functioning for almost two decades in Exarchia, and is a venue for free language classes and support to immigrants, antiracist struggles, as well as queer groups and the association of conscientious objectors.

[13] Mavili Collective was formed in 2010 as an autonomous collective. Its aims is to re-think and re-imagine the current Greek cultural landscape and propose collaborative projects that help the creations of nomadic and autonomous cultural zones beyond the logics of the market. http://mavilicollective.wordpress.com/”http://mavilicollective.wordpress.com/, ttp://www.empros.gr/”www.empros.gr


[14] In 1922, the Turkish army invaded the Greek Orthodox enclave of Smyrna in Turkey. Over a million refugees fled to Athens and its surroundings, thus creating entire new districts within the city, and some of those migrants settled in huts nearby, just behind the Lycabettus Hill.

[15] Between 1933 and 1939, they built most of the 127 housing complexes, all of which were financed by the State. The Prosfigika Complex is one of Laskaris and Kyriakos’s largest housing scheme and is considered a pure expression of the Bauhaus culture. http://www.docomomo.com/com/PDF/pdf_docomomo_journals/E.KaroliRefurbishment_or_demolition_in_Athens-DJ37Sept2007_64-67-.pdf

[16]   From the assembly report of Prosfygika (ΣΥ.ΚΑ.ΠΡΟ), 2012.

[17]   By Anny Vrichea I suggest the reading of: Katoikisi kai katoikia, Dierevnontas ta oria tis Arxitektonikis(Habitation and home:Exploring the limits of Architecture,close connection of gender sexuality and space), Ellynika Grammata, Athens 2003.

[18] Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund S.A. was founded in 2011 and is based in Athens. The company focuses on developing and selling private properties of the public sector in Greece. The company sells, develops, and liquidates assets transferred from the state including real estate, company shares, and rights.

[19] Arjun Appandurai , Modernity at large. Cultural dimensions of Globalisation, University of Minnesota, 1996. A new kind of imaginative communities (Αnderson 1983) is being formed which produce new forms of politics and new varieties of collective expression.

[20] http://antifaperformingarts.wordpress.com

[21] http://saligari.espivblogs.net

[22] http://davidharvey.org/media/righttothecity.pdf