It is 1986, and I stand in front of a maquette (Figure 1). This maquette is not only representative of an architectural space, but homologous to my twenty-year-old self and how I wanted to see the future – both my future as an architect and the future of the collective counterculture that is the maquette’s hypothetical subject. In retrospect, the action of making this maquette was at once material (creating the maquette), conceptual (reworking concepts into forms), and embodied (interwoven with lived experiences). At its most basic, this action consisted of synthesizing a set of disparate references – some encountered in real life, and some through the work of the mind—into a new creation. In revisiting the life experience that my twenty-year-old self poured into the maquette and articulating what it meant, I will glean what it tells me today about the arc of designing and prefiguration – as a process inherent in designing, and as a template for desire, encapsulated by the drive to ‘be the change’, rather than to change the world.
And here I will begin by reminiscing about an absent photograph:
It is fall 1986 and I am twenty. A young student in the architecture school, eager to complete my assignment. At last, in a room of my own, and it all starts on the floor, as it always had been. My room is both my studio and my bedroom, and its biggest surface where modelling work can be performed is the floor. I have been on floors before. This is where my architectural training began, building worlds out of blocks for countless hours as a little girl. Only, this time it is not with building blocks. I have cardboard and knives. I have copper wire and plaster. I have sandpaper. None of it here by chance. I have planned the project meticulously, and that night I have collected my materials and tools before me on the floor ready to execute my project. The project is both an assignment, and an escape plan. It’s an aggregate of desires, and thus its name: the ‘Constellation’.
It is late at night, and I am on the ground floor of a two-storey house. An old lady lives upstairs and has rented me this studio apartment for very little money. The studio has no heat installation, and it is very humid. But now it is early fall, and I have just returned from the summer vacation. This past summer I was camping on the Greek island of Lesvos with a group of friends from the school of architecture. I have a new look with short hair, and by now my wardrobe has switched almost fully to black. The weather is great. The window is open to the garden just outside, and a gentle breeze flows over me – working on my knees on the floor – and brings with it the scent of jasmine and sounds of cats during their nocturnal walk. There is a cemetery down the road, and then the city.
That morning, I walked down to the city to buy the material I needed. I passed by the house of my friend to chat, but I wasn’t distracted, as on most other days, because I was on a mission. I went to the stationery shop, and then to the hardware store. I enjoyed visiting the hardware store. The encounter and conversations with these sellers always excited me. Their cleverness with materials and things, their capacity to offer solutions even to my most absurd demands continually stunned me (‘What ready-made metal object can I use as a dome?’ – ‘A ladle, of course!’) The previous day I even went to a medical hardware store to purchase a surgical knife because the cardboard I wanted to use was too hard for the regular model-knife.
I like the tools and the materials I brought home. The black sandpaper for the maquette’s floor with its roughness and shine – a choice that emerged out of trial and error when the beige cardboard failed to work – gives me the most pleasure. It enhances all other colours and textures, making everything stand out. Although, at first, I was disappointed not to find rusted metal for the roof, the copper wire is good enough, introducing something from the real world so the maquette will carry no resemblance to a miniature.
Sitting on my knees on the floor, I have a feeling of determination, the tools collected in front of me convey a sense of empowerment. I am content with how my idea has shaped up, and at this moment, I have a concrete plan of execution, or so I think. My plan has arisen largely from sketches on rice paper, placed over the Green Market’s floor plan. My sketches traced its scale, its modularity, the proportion between its built and unbuilt parts, its relationship with the outside.
Most of the work happens at night. I turn on the radio and I start measuring, cutting, and assembling pieces into forms, bit by bit shaping the maquette. Lately, busy with this project, I have stopped going to my usual hangouts downtown. From that point on, in fact, I go less and less to these places, and when I do, I see less and less of my punkster friends. Most of my time I now spend with the friends from architecture. It is the end of an era, only I don’t know it yet. But it is these other kids, the punksters, and our common countercultural life that fueled the ‘Constellation’. When I finish the maquette, I know that despite all my meticulous planning, what I see is nothing I had imagined. This is its own species, a life of its own has just emerged in front of my eyes.
There is no photograph that captures us in action.
The sensibility expressed by this maquette is a combination of chance and intent, contingency and will. In her design ethnography, Albena Yaneva talks about design as a trajectorial process and about the material dominating the maker: ‘Thus architects delegate to the material the power to enfold … And the ‘knowing architect’ loses mastery over the building [s]he is striving to understand’ [1: 58]. This is true for my project, though its trajectory starts much earlier, long before I landed in that room of my own.
An ambiguous prefiguration
The photo of me with the maquette, a historical fragment from my life as an architect in the making, encapsulates not only what I personally stood for but also the countercultural way of life my social group subscribed to and enacted. We were a product of mid-1980s Thessaloniki, a port city with a strong university presence in the north of Greece, dominated by the Aristotle University (AUTH), home of the Department of Architectural Engineering. Some might claim there is nothing original in the character of our particular subculture; everything we loved and did was first produced by others, at other places. Some might call our cultural milieu ‘derivative’, or at best ‘hybrid’, but neither characterization detracts from its value in determining who we were. Our lives – and the assemblage of nuances, sounds, and materiality encoded in the maquette – weren’t lacking in originality.
Inspired by Eve Tuck, I lean on desire-centered rather than damage-centered research [2: p. 409-428]. Tuck warns us to avoid accounting for the loss and rather focus on ‘the hope, the visions, the wisdom of lived lives. … Desire is involved with the not yet and, at times, the not anymore’ [2: p. 416]. Yes, labeling 1980s Greek youth communities as ‘dispossessed’ could hardly be seen as a stretch given our under-resourced conditions in a country still recovering from dictatorship, imbued with political corruption, and with the lowest GDP in the European Union. In retrospect, as students in a state school at the edge of Europe – and members of a society continuously suffering from youth unemployment – we were indisputably disenfranchised. But as children of people of the war generation, mainly from rural families that had migrated to the new centers of urbanity in a modernizing nation-state, we were also undeniably privileged: first-generation college students using our new knowledge and freedom to create imaginaries that were drastic departures from those that came before us. Raised in modern apartments sprouting up across Greece in the 1960s and ’70s, we were never taught to think of ourselves as ‘broken’.
Recalling today the multiple aspirations of 1970-80s Greece, it is hard to separate them from the devastating decades of austerity that the country has been going through since the late 2000s. What took place in Greece – and even in our separate lives – seems like the end of a different story from the one I am about to recollect. The imaginaries that concern me will have little to do with real afterlives. Rather, I am trying to keep my attention on a sliver of life as we knew it. As a member of that generation and community, I speak not from ‘unfulfilled longing’ [3: p. 413], nor from communal guilt, but rather from a place of entangled collectivity and individuality, desire and design. In different terms, this maquette tells a story of prefiguring what never came to be, an ‘ends-effacing prefiguration’ rather than an ‘ends-guided’ one [4: p. 49]. Its projected future was ambiguous and full of contradictions, like the utopias invented by the American speculative fiction writer Ursula Le Guin and others engaged in imaginary world-making.
Was our imagined world – and by extension, this maquette – a story of prefigurative politics, similar to those of Occupy or other well-known political movements that rehearse a desired future? At first glance, no. While several members of the punk and post-punk subcultures in 1980s Greece were participants in protests, university buildings’ occupations and squats, the word ‘political’ was in some ways extraneous to our cynical, even nihilistic Generation X. But if we define politics as the will or capacity to ‘change intersubjectively through a myriad micro-exchanges’ [5: p. 28], or see politics as an arena of much broader praxis that would include ‘body politics, emotional pluralism and affective communication’ [6: p. 56], then that 1986 project was surely political. Even if our political perspective lacked articulation or was vaguely affiliated with the non-parliamentary left – even if we chose tactical escapism from strategic planning – our ‘experimental openness’ (also a ‘defining feature’ and ‘central strategic advantage’, or prefiguration) [4: p. 56] was broader than in conventional political formations. From a perspective of temporality, the maquette was not about a change we wanted to see in the future; rather, it encapsulated an uncompromising change realized in the present – a change embodied by us, and the way we ran our lives. Our life project signaled a decisive break from the mainstream and the suffocating aesthetics of the world that surrounded us. Yet there were no discussions on futurity or liberation; that life we’d devised was not anticipatory or a means to an end, but rather means as an end.
Our ‘politics’ ran not on slogans and demands. Ours was an aesthetic platform, tested through a distinct prefigurative habitus that was simultaneously envisioned and lived [7: 277-88]. Music and body fashioning were central themes (Figure 2). Urban life – the way we occupied the city’s fringes, mostly at night – was a determining factor. Architecture seemed like a lesser expression, the background of our countercultural vernacular: the locales and dimly lit hangouts we frequented, but for me also spaces we encountered in films and books. The cross-pollination of these genres and subdisciplines produced an imaginary that was attained both conceptually and experientially. To use the words of Eve Tuck, who is citing Deleuze and Guattari, this imaginary expressed a desire that was ‘assembled, crafted over a lifetime through our experiences … picking up of distinct bits and pieces that … become integrated into a dynamic whole’ [2: p. 418; 8: p. 164].
A note on method
Writing a memoir has been an unexpected turn of events. This essay began as part of my broader body of work on the relation between prefigurative politics and design [9; 10]. Arguing that collective creativity is a key agency of political imagination, I have been researching the processes of spatio-material making in prefigurative political spaces, such as Christiania Freetown, an autonomous district of approximately 1,000 residents, established in 1971 Copenhagen, and proclaimed the ‘biggest opportunity to build up a society from scratch’ (Figure 3), and Occupy, which began at New York City’s Zuccotti Park in November 2011 and aimed to challenge income inequality and practice direct democracy principles, starting one of the major prefigurative movement of our recent times.
This essay, however, following the prompt of my New School colleague, the political theorist Victoria Hattam, addresses the subject from a different direction. Instead of trying to locate design in prefigurative political action, here I am trying to locate the prefigurative in design(ing). Initially, I considered tracking the prefigurative in the work of well-known designers whose work had a strong political engagement. But then I opted for a different approach: to track the prefigurative in my own experience of designing. And would there be any more productive time to search for the prefigurative than in my work as an architecture student, which coincided with some of the most intense experiences of collectivity in my life’s trajectory?
And thus, I embarked on a study of material practices of desire and design using reflexive memory as a resource. Being both subject and object of my study, and in attempting the nearly impossible – unmooring my present self to retrieve a dormant past – I fluctuate among opposing positions of spatial, temporal and substantive intimacy. Can I put aside my present-day professional judgment and re-enact the aspirations of myself and my collective from 35 years ago? Can I recall my twenty-year-old self in action, devoid of my panoply of precautions as mother of a twenty-year-old today? Can I shed the resentment of my adult enclosures and breathe the air that liberated me within the expansive 1980s counterculture?
To confront this challenge, I return to various materials, spaces, smells, and sounds, not just as objects of study but as entry points of discovery. Matter has the capacity to awaken lost senses, by interfacing with the pores of our skin and sending signals to our nervous system that can then expand our imagination. With slow brushstrokes, I unsettle the dust of my memories, careful not to disfigure the fragile shapes that flicker into view.
Enlivening memory through materiality
To uncover the prefigurative capacity of designing first I must remember. I want to remember how and in what state of mind I prefigured, more than what I prefigured. I want to shed light into this black box of human memory, to pierce it without cracking it open. My guide to this personal pursuit will be a book that had profoundly influenced me, working in the back of my mind ever since I read it more than three decades ago: The Lover, an autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras . In looking at a photograph of her adolescent self, Duras found her older self simultaneously rediscovering and recreating that dimmed self of her past, trying to defy forgetfulness and shame. In my own dual-faceted process, I hope to persuade my untamed twenty-year-old self to come along with me. I will strive not to falsify her wants and (mis)understandings as I reconcile them with my own of today. And I hope I will not betray the countercultural desires of my conspirators – even though I am aware that memory is a distortion lens.
How do I feel as I look at my young self in this photo? What is the twenty-year-old telling me about her feelings? First, there is joy, coming from a very old place – a hidden space of freedom I’d been building since I was a child, absorbed for hours and days in the act of world-making, working out my most obscure emotions with wooden blocks. Second, there is a sense of accomplishment, and it comes not from my impressive performance in the class nor from the fact that my professor included the maquette in an exhibition of professional architects. I took no particular pride in these accolades. Instead, this project encapsulates the constellation of meaning and desire that I assembled to postpone my departure to a professional career, to ‘rescue’ my friends and myself from the compromised world of adulthood. Planning an imaginary escape from what was typically seen as ‘our future’; occupying a space that was not meant for us; performing ‘a squat of the mind’ were some of my accomplishments.
My interaction with this maquette cannot be translated only by reference to the architectural discourse. Like most design acts, my process fused systems and agency; collectivity (both of my counterculture, and of my architectural learning) and individuality; human and material capacity; plan and contingency. It generated an architectural language in response to and through cross-pollination with other references I’d encountered—a language that incorporated numerous references external to architecture, translating them into a series of architectural gestures and a unique lexicon: my own architectural speech act. This is the essence of deviance that I secretly celebrated in that photo. The maquette looks architectural, as though it adheres to the norms of a certain architectural school. It made architects believe that it was a product of their discourse. But my maquette covertly embodied ambitions that were foreign to architecture. To paraphrase a book that I adored at that time, Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, ‘The nights of my architecture are more beautiful than your days’ .
A referential universe
My nocturnal architecture was more than sandpaper and copper. A picture of the maquette, documented clinically, tells an incomplete story (Figure 4). The referential universe of the ‘Constellation’ consisted of various threads unraveled from my mental and experiential encounters (excerpts, images, words), most of which I might have misinterpreted or had used being oblivious to their original meaning. These were the findings of my aesthetic journeys that – as if safeguarded in a mental treasure chest – were retrieved and synthesized in the specific configuration of this maquette and, later, in other projects. My treasure chest was assembled in nighttime walks along the Thessaloniki coast and summer trips in the Greek islands – journeys fueled by confessional conversations, bar-hopping, musical experiences, and a plethora of other shared early-morning moments with friends and strangers while gathering in homes or empty squares.
Along these adventures and wanderings, we obsessively sought and discovered a broader collective culture coming to us from far away. We listened to post-punk music originating in Germany, the USA or Australia; watched French and German films; spent hours in bookstores; passionately read literature, philosophy and poetry; and fashioned unusual hairstyles. We attended university classes selectively, often choosing our own reading and projects over textbooks or school assignments. We were part of a scene, living in conditions of material scarcity but imaginary plenitude. The practices evoked in the maquette’s space were episodes from films shot in Berlin and New York where our imaginary selves mingled with the decadent heroes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jim Jarmusch.
The given and the transformed
Handed to me with this assignment was a modular market typology – an abandoned 1920s building in Thessaloniki, which I was instructed to adapt with a programme of my choice. I liked the existing building: its simplicity, the thin envelope embracing a large inner yard, its lack of ornamentation, its relationship with the desolate neighborhood (Figures 5 and 6). It was a fertile site for the imagination of a twenty-year-old, a site where I and my countercultural collective could see ourselves as fictional inhabitants.
No notations – either on the maquette or in the drawings – describe the programmatic use of the space I designed, aside from a few words: movie theatre, concert hall, studios. But the full storyboard of practices I envisioned for this space is coming to life now as I walk the picture of the maquette with my eyes. The drive-in theatre of abandoned cars comes not from any real-life experience, but from John Carpenter’s goth cinematography in Escape from New York. The concert hall, which references the transfigured Hagios Demetrios church after the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917, was inspired by an old newspaper photo I had discovered in an antique store (Figure 7). The studio spaces that domesticate the modular building are an offering to my own musician friends for their rehearsals, alongside an undefined underground space ready to be explored by our anti-establishment conspirators, while several dispersed pavilions inside and outside the market’s envelope operate as print shops for the production of zines, record covers and posters.
The architectural translation of these practices is guided by two formal geometrical gestures: a shifting rectangle and a splintered circle. The cinema, concert hall and underground space are introduced in the market’s open space through the insertion of three rectangular topologies – each suggesting a ‘city within the city’ composition (a concept developed by German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers in the 1970s). The concert is parallel to the market’s axial geometry; the underground space and drive-in cinema are oblique, with the cinema screen obstructing the main gate. My intent was to recreate a powerful experience I had that year in a workshop at Thessaloniki’s National Theatre – the feeling of entering a performance space through the backstage – and thus to predispose the visitors to be both consumers and producers of the cultural scene. Finally, instead of preserving the market’s self-enclosed typology, I introduced a circular geometry with a diameter wider than the building’s, splintering its rectilinear envelope and establishing points of permeability between the market and the surrounding city. This gesture, like the centrifugal forces of a rotating orbit, organized the dispersed geometry of the pavilions, an array of fragmented objects spilling beyond the enclosed space – as if endeavouring to coalesce with all the real spaces that we frequented in the city, to generate a new whole: a ‘Constellation’. The shifted rectangles (concert hall, studios, theatre) represented also a temporal programmatic diagram that need not emerge simultaneously, but perhaps in different moments in time. Thus, the maquette represented both an architectural space, and a diagram of indeterminate practices — examples of a future that could not be fully anticipated, a desire that remained open and unfolding.
Although these acts were almost tactile in their imaginary capacity, a real building never was. The reality, if any, had to do only with this maquette, not as a predecessor of a would-be architecture, but as a rehearsal of its sensibility. Like the bouncing reflections of multiple mirrors, the ‘Constellation’ was the dispositif of my twenty-year-old imagination and its manifold references.
At the heart of this project lies a deep adoration of the ruin, and an interest in finding a syntax that would allow me to compose new forms out of fragments, both found and created. Surrealism had much to do with my approach; I was fascinated with a certain disposition in artistic creativity, epitomized by Lautréamont’s idea of the ‘chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’ . My apotheosis of the ruin was also inspired by an important yet largely unknown figure on the Greek literary scene: Yorgos Makris, a vagabond poet who committed suicide in the 1970s . Makris set up the Association of the Aesthetic Saboteurs of Antiquities (AASA), and his 1944 manifesto declared ‘Let’s Detonate the Acropolis’ targeting the Parthenon, which ‘had literally suffocated us’ [14: p. 251-253]. This had a tremendous impact on me, precisely because it was the antithesis to all the odes to antiquity that I had been ‘fed’ as a Greek.
Post-industrial ruin, however, had a life of its own that was more pertinent to my generation, and was a protagonist in my chosen music scene. The Berlin-based post-punk ‘noise’ band Einstürzende Neubauten, with its infamous 1981 album, Kollaps (Figure 8), not only created a sound of industry in decay but also performed in the industrial ruins of the German capital, where the band had originally formed. Their instruments included found objects such as hammers and drills. The rough sandpaper and rusted copper of my maquette resonated with the sound of these instruments and the hard surfaces that surrounded such legendary bands.
Adding to my preoccupation was the fact that Thessaloniki itself was a palimpsest of ruins. Almost all my assignments as an architecture student involved reworking the archeological fragments that punctuated the city, revealing its ancient, Roman and Byzantine past. But I was also intrigued by the empty, obsolete architectural relics of the city’s modern era. Their uncanny relationship with the post-1950s urban fabric, and their resistance to integration into the city’s landscape, sparked my imagination. One such site was the old Green Market on the city’s periphery – the site of my studio assignment that led to this project.
The 1980s were an era of meaningful engagement with the ruin in the architectural discourse. Aldo Rossi – who articulated the concept of the analogical city, which generates its form based on its own fragmented collective memory – was a significant figure in my formal education, unavoidably influential in my understanding of how architectural form emerges as an aggregate of a city’s other architectures . At the same time, deconstruction was an upcoming architectural movement represented by architects like Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Coop Himmelb(l)au and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). It opened a formal language that I was eager to adopt and experiment with. Its aesthetic language spoke to me directly and provided lines of flight that I invested with my own meanings. From my studies of these works, I extracted a formal logic that permitted me to induce my own acts of shattering.
Most important, the language of deconstruction gave me a way to mobilize fragments that carried non-historical iconic references. The eclecticism of the European and American postmodernist school did not suit me, but what struck a chord for me was Gehry’s early work with its iconoclastic iconography and materiality of decay (Figure 9) – and, above all, the work of Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, where deconstruction was visible in its compositional rather than formal logic. In the conceptual drawing for Elia Zenghelis’ Antiparos project, which I admired and dissected as an architecture student, one could decipher a diagram of circles and lines that intersected to create a topographic composition (Figure 10). Zoe Zenghelis’ drawings did not divulge the origins of this diagram, but one could conjecture forces as coming from the contours of the landscape, and from the architect’s will to create an almost faltering sense of totality – an anti-grid composition, and an aggregate of shapes that were both united and severed.
Lastly, the synthesizing out of fragments was, for me, also a poetic act – a discovery made in my high school years while studying T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, which I read (in Yorgos Seferis’ Greek translation ) as a polyphonic assemblage of disparate references. The ‘unsettling, neurotic energy’ of both the poem and Eliot’s own annotation presented an inspirational glimpse into the poet’s method ‘of gathering and transforming quotes and fragments from many languages and many eras into the texture of his poems’ . I was deeply inspired by this, but, unlike the modernists, I felt no need to reconstruct architectural fragments into a coherent whole. The references I used in my own work had an eclectic, multilingual character that was in fact akin to my post-modernist upbringing, rather than following a modernist aspiration for unity.
This fragmentary nature of my design project evidences ‘the multiplicity, complexity, and contradiction of desire, how desire reaches for contrasting realities, even simultaneously’ [8: p. 418]. My designer’s mind breathed and scanned the world that came to me through mediated encounters with a taste for a certain textural sensibility. The rustiness of the walls at an Einstürzende Neubauten concert venue, the elasticity of the band’s guitar chords, the shades of lighting throughout that perilous Escape from New York, the dryness of the wasteland—all were mentally ‘collected’ as materials of my designing and as methods of my own compositional manner. In truth, I had been designing the ‘Constellation’ long before I worked on this assignment, gathering the tools and materials that would help me realize that project. These references, therefore, are not concepts illustrated by the maquette or explanatory schemes for interpreting the project. To my mind the maquette formed an ensemble in conjunction with the films, the music, and the books, not a translation of these genres that preceded it, but a gesture that brought them together creating a new kinship. Not a maquette for, but a maquette of.
Unlike design for a cause – politically programmatic design that responds to need for change – this was design of ‘lived space’ in the Lefebvrian sense of space as being changed and appropriated by imagination, composed by almost ‘non-verbal symbols and signs’ [18: p. 39]. It was a space that did not need to obey external ‘rules of consistency or cohesiveness’ [18: p. 41]. The project was part me and part the ecosystem of my town's hardware and stationery stores, part Thessaloniki and part Berlin (also the name of a legendary bar, our collective’s hangout place), part architectural deconstruction and part Einstürzende Neubauten. The maquette was both a composite and a capacitor.
My twenty-year-old self’s allegiance to Thessaloniki – a city of poets and philosophers, with a rich, multicultural past that was devoured by the nation state – had little to do with the imagined community of its citizens. In the mid-1980s a neoliberal world order was looming over Greece, and many families (including my own) would soon feel new economic hardship in their bones. In our eagerness to create our own present, distinct from life as our forebears knew it, young people of my generation weren’t directly or consciously concerned with these anxieties. My own allegiance was aligned with those who listened to Einstürzende Neubauten and Australian singer Nick Cave; who watched Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, Żuławski’s L’amour braque, and the full oeuvres of New German Cinema directors like Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder; and those who read Makris’ manifesto and Duras’ L’amant  and La maladie de la mort . Our universe comprised a precarious map connecting distant points on Earth and creating flights of desire and transcendence. We experienced this expansive but fragile present in our every-night life, as our experiences sought locales and temporalities that the city had left briefly unattended, available for us to appropriate in our fugitive pursuits that left almost no marks for daytime inhabitants.
As Jose Esteban Muñoz suggests about his own punk culture of 1980s Miami, we were living a ‘desire, indeed the demand, at the heart of punk, for “something else” that is not the present time or place’ – in other words, a ‘demand … for a dystopia that functions like the utopian’, an ongoing longing to actualize a collectivity ‘that was desirous of thinking of itself in relation to a larger collective’ [20: p. 99]. The originary collective was far away, both an imagined and an unimaginably distant community, echoing from garages, nightclubs, and back alleys in lands that we never thought we would visit. But in the world of my design, we would do more than just contemplate or consume; we would make these imaginaries our own, molding them through our dreamworlds into distinct creative endeavours. Therefore, the first thing one encounters upon entering the ‘Constellation’ through a cracked door, as if from backstage, is a gigantic screen where we would begin by immersing ourselves in that imaginary, establishing a larger kinship and an ‘other place’. That elsewhere, neither fully here nor there, neither fully present nor future, was the aim of that prefiguration – and thus the ‘Constellation’ of this 1986 photograph is not bound to Thessaloniki, but standing upright and solo, ready to launch toward this ‘other place’.
Margins and Misfits
Thinking of myself in that room, creating this project, I see prefigurative processes similar to those I found in prefigurative political spaces. But my experience of the prefigurative both matches and does not fully align with my later learnings. Like the members of prefigurative projects that I’ve studied, I hold empowering tools in my hands. The process of building the maquette has me alone on that floor, with fragments of a precious, referential universe at my fingertips, yet I am not in solitude. My collective affiliations have instilled in me a certain spirit – certain ideas, desires, and ways of doing and knowing. My creative self is loaded with our common resources; the voices and visions of my collaborators are present and acting with and within me. I am there to synthesize and give architectural form to things that my collective worships – music, footsteps, fragmented readings, glimpses to faraway universes – and to cross-fertilize them with references of my own, moving them in new directions.
In transforming an abandoned marketplace into the ‘Constellation’ through the mode of imagination that a maquette affords, I rearranged the materiality of our collective life into a form that was simultaneously concrete and projective. But my work was not shared with my conspirators. Despite strong feelings of loyalty to my counterculture, as a young woman in a male-dominated environment, even at its margins, I was given little space to articulate our collective will. Nevertheless, among legendary musicians and DJs, yet never at centre-stage – often in the role of fan, follower, or muse – I aspired to be no less of a creative actor in our underground universe. Architecture empowered me to act both on behalf of and as a member of our alternative world, in a language that few of us possessed. With our nascent professional training, young women like me funneled our anti-mainstream vision into our disciplinary pretexts, ‘speaking’ it in a language foreign to most of our male conspirators. Paradoxically, those who got to know and appreciate the ‘Constellation’ were members of the architectural community, not of the counterculture I belonged to – most of them largely unfamiliar with the aesthetic sensibilities of post-punk.
As a new diagram for living, the maquette rearranged fragments of my countercultural experience into an architectural form intended to sustain creativity and lead to new paths. Yet for several reasons, it did neither. First, this project was severed from the agency of spatial production, never moving beyond its existence as an architectural exercise. Second, none of us had the patience or could afford waiting for arrival to a utopian future. Our prefigurative was not meant to be a provisional vehicle pointing to an unreachable end. Third, the ‘Constellation’ was not a blueprint of collective action, but a quiet song uttered from the margin’s margins.
Fate intervened, and from the factory of our collective imaginary, the maquette found an unlikely place on a gallery wall, framed as an auteur’s creation. Exhibited as part of the ‘Street, Square, Urban Block’ exhibition held by the Technical Chamber of Greece in Thessaloniki in 1987, but removed from the actual streets, its countercultural context was silenced, and its prefigurative capacity atrophied. The photograph of the girl with the maquette, shot after the maquette was returned to me, was the last memorable moment of the project’s existence. The maquette’s eventual disposal is lost to memory, probably because the ‘Constellation’ had already lost its relevance; its components were disaggregated, and life moved on. Thus, the maquette was just a ‘rehearsal,’ not a fetishized ‘object of desire’, these being terms used by a theorist of prefiguration, Dan Swain, to describe prefiguration in terms of a ‘proleptic “reaching ahead” … as a rehearsal … [rather than as] a “synecdochic” part of a desired whole … a fetish, in which a part no longer stands in for a whole but is mistaken for it’ [4: p. 59].
A few years later, having spent countless hours on model-making for our thesis project, my friend Eleni Petouri and I imagined a ‘cemetery of maquettes’: a shady warehouse with old models lying in disarray, their glue dried up, until one day the door would creak open and a breeze would make the detached roofs of the maquettes flutter. Years passed, and indeed an old box was opened to reveal a photo with a maquette that would reclaim an unpredictable afterlife after thirty-five years in oblivion – slowly unravelling the entangled pathways of an imaginary. And now, as an experienced architectural sceptic, I cannot stop wondering: What happens when a prefigurative culture lends itself to an unrealized architectural design, to a case of ‘cardboard architecture’  as this project might have been seen? Is its prefigurative character nullified because of the inanimate character of the object? Is a maquette’s prefigurative diametrically opposed to that of a squat as a lived political praxis? More broadly, can the prefigurative be imparted to an object, or can it only survive in verb form, demanding continuous reverberation between bodies in action?
Prefiguratives in Abeyance
Like a maquette in the architectural field, prefigurative politics is typically seen as ‘a blueprint’ [22: p. 530], or as ‘a synecdoche, a miniature version of the society desired’ [23: p. 646]. And as in the process of designing, ‘trial-and-error are core founding components of most prefigurative action’ [23: p. 646]. In both design and prefigurative politics, how we can reach a future point – that is, the means – is somewhat equivalent with what we want to see at that endpoint. As a protest camp or an occupation are considered the testbeds of the desired society (as in the Occupy movement), a maquette is for architecture the rehearsal of a future built form. Yet more often than not, projects remain unrealized, leaving each of these maquettes, protest camps or squats, as an end in themselves, rather than as true synecdoches [4: p. 59]. And for this, they are the only traces that evidence the political or creative work – the only path to the imaginary that prompted them.
Certain architectural theorists, such as the well-known proponent of conceptual architecture, Peter Eisenman, assert that a maquette need not be a blueprint of an actual building awaiting realization – that, in fact, the truth of architecture often exists more in the model and drawings than in its built reality . The maquette of the ‘Constellation’, like many projects of the 1980s, did not endeavour to be a means to an anticipated future. With its politics of an ‘ends-effacing prefiguration’ [4: p. 49] it remained loyal to my counterculture.
But the maquette’s micropolitics do not fully align with architectural discourse. For instance, ‘cardboard architecture’ is often blamed as being pure conception and, as such, is thus contrasted to materiality. It is also seen as being homologous to claims of architectural autonomy and thus in opposition to the architecture of participation [24: p. 23-41]. Overcoming these dichotomies, this maquette was neither pure concept nor purely autonomous. It did not subscribe to the dichotomy between conceptualism and phenomenology, privileging the mental versus the corporeal understanding of a project – thereby defying Eisenman’s conviction about the distinction ‘between architecture as a conceptual, cultural and intellectual enterprise, and architecture as a phenomenological enterprise … [as in] the experience of materiality, of light, of color, of space’ . Nor was it true ‘cardboard architecture’ as an architect-generated vision that neglects the users’ perspectives. Quite the opposite. In the above I am recollecting a moment in time when I was both an architect and a user; and in which embodiment and materiality reverberate – rather than stand in opposition – with a conceptual universe.
Architecture and design rarely appear in the discourse of prefigurative politics, and vice versa, yet surely they constitute modes of ‘fighting with tools’ [25: p. 177-194]. Contemplated in their full generative capacity, architecture and design have a place among repertoires of prefigurative action such as spatial occupations (squats), digital media, or the ‘social irrealist’ work of video-gaming, which are recognized by some social movement theorists as ‘tools’ of dissent [26: p. 341-359]. Thus, architecture and design might not only provide analytical lenses, but also act as springboards for alternative world-making: a material pedagogy that bridges present and future, embodiment and representation, pre-signification and shared language, and that offers resources for ‘proleptic learning’ that ‘anticipates or imagines competence’ [27: p. 91; 4: p. 58].
Regardless of whether the ‘Constellation’ was unrealistic or irrealist – a formalist exercise or just an instance of ‘cardboard architecture’ – my architecture experience in 1980s Thessaloniki had something of the ‘magical touch of dream and desire ... the shock of the poetic’ [28: p. 4] which fuels prefigurative politics. And while this approach might be irrelevant in today’s professional context of architecture as the handmaiden of real estate dominance and surplus value materialization [29: p. 24], its imaginary workings can achieve new resonance as various collectivities mobilize their own radically alternative visions of futurity, such as those presented by the Afrofuturist architects of the Black Reconstruction Collective [30; 31].
My re-encounter with a past prefigurative is just one demonstration of the ‘”counter-futures” that are imagined by marginalized or minoritized populations’ [23: p. 1], as youth cultures often are. Other such prefigurative architectures lurk in forgotten drawers and closed boxes, in squats, camps or marginalized spaces, and can be unravelled and reassembled both by its members or those who discover and enliven them. In the memoir above, the act of material remembering opened a path that led me to the origins of the ‘Constellation’, a treasure box of resources that I had curated at a young age. The maquette acted as a time capacitor, embodying with its materiality a perpetual present tense. It allowed me to recover a prefigurative agency lying in abeyance , both awaiting and constructing a new claimant.