Floating University

Developing an Extitution
An urban infrastructure, ecosystem, and artist-run organisation located in a rainwater-retention basin that questions urban infrastructure by appropriating the basin as a public space and reimagines education as a continuous learning site, challenging the traditional institution “university”


Institutions have a long history of separating different forms of knowledge into distinct disciplines, creating silos of knowledge and limiting interdisciplinary collaboration and the exchange of ideas. Faced with this model of “institution” and with a need to overcome its physical and conceptual constraints, the notion of the “extitution” entered political and sociological discourse in 2001.1Francisco Javier Tirado, and Miquel Domènech, “Extituciones: Del poder y sus anatomías”. Politica y Sociedad, 36 (2001), pp. 183-196. While institutions are grounded in hard materiality, with a focus on bodies and buildings that are defined by their plans and create thick and repetitive relationships, extitutions are based on a soft and mixed materiality and are characterised by fluid, variable, and floating relationships.

Institutions create routines and confinement and have a tendency to rely on forms of band-aid solution to problems. Extitutions, conversely, incorporate and connect, creating flexible and inclusive environments where a multitude of agents, including individuals and organisations, can spontaneously assemble and interact.


A large rainwater basin—still largely unknown to Berliners—lies hidden by the North of the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin. Flanked by allotment gardens, tall trees, tennis courts, and a cemetery, it is almost invisible to the casual passer-by. The basin was built in the 1930s in order to collect rainwater for the event of a fire on the runway of the adjacent, inner city airport, Tempelhof. Over the past 80 years, the defunct infrastructure developed a life of its own: plants self seeded, animals moved in—all contributing to the coming into being of a diverse landscape, not least because it had been inaccessible to the public for so long. This changed in 2018, when the Berlin-based architecture collective raumlabor managed to gain access to the site in order to activate it as a “cultural and socio-political space”.2‘FLOATING BERLIN.’ <https://floating-berlin.org/> [accessed 8 February 2023].

Initially called Floating University, the space opened its doors in May 2018 as a temporary campus and laboratory including spaces for studying, researching, cooking, resting, discussing, making, as well as food growing amongst many other things. The idea was to create a “visionary inner city offshore-laboratory for collective, experimental learning, knowledge transfer and the formation of trans-disciplinary networks to challenge routines and habits of urban practices”.3See above. It brought together students and researchers from more than twenty international universities to co-construct and co-create the curriculum of the university together. Designed as a constellation of lightweight, flexible, and adaptive steel and wood scaffold structures, the structure didn’t have any permanent foundations as it was a condition not to alter or damage the basin’s surface. Part of the Floating University’s structures became the Urban Forest—originally produced for the HKW Wohnungsfrage exhibition by Atelier Bow-Wow and the Kooperatives Labor Studierender (Kolabs) in 2015—which was repurposed as a living and working space for the campus. Over the years, some of the spaces remained, whilst others were adapted to reflect on what had been learned over the course of the year and to create new configurations according to the programme necessities and the site conditions. Although the threat of a lawsuit had consequences for the experiment’s name – it was no longer allowed to refer to “university” in the title – the main field of interest of what subsequently became known as the Floating University continued to revolve around questions of education, learning, and pedagogy; with the temporary structure serving as a platform and starting point to initiate explorations and experimentations. The demand to strike-through “university” further added to those debates, as they foregrounded the tensions and controversies around the role and sites of learning.4

What started as a temporary project was transformed into a more permanent state with the founding of the association Floating e.V., bringing together practitioners, researchers, students, artists, musicians, builders, architects, and people from the surrounding community to collectively plan for the site’s futures. The association continues to take care and maintain the site, organising “non-disciplinary, radical, and collaborative” public programmes.4Dalal Elarji, and Christoph Michels. “Same but Different: The Floating University Berlin (FUB) and the Making of Another University.” Architecture and Culture 9, no. 1 (January 2, 2021), pp. 121-43 <https://doi.org/10.1080/20507828.2020.1759951> In 2020, the Berlin Senate for Urban Development, Building and Housing (Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung, Bauen und Wohnen) recognised the importance of urban interventions like Floating University as catalysts for city making and officially supported the creation of Urbane Praxis e.V., an association of urban practitioners in Berlin that brings together individuals and organisations from civil society, urban practice, administration, and politics through “intermediary communication, representation, and responsiveness.”5‘Association | Urbane Praxis’ <https://www.urbanepraxis.berlin/association/?lang=en> [accessed 9 February 2023]. Floating University reveals how spatial practice can break established boundaries and relationships and become a platform to address and foster interdisciplinary approaches, mobilise resources, and coordinate efforts to tackle the complex environmental and social issues facing cities.


External links

Climate Care festival—situated at the Floating University basin, it explores the intersection of climate challenges, ethics of care, and environmental humanities through both theory and practice 

JUNIPARK festival—a scaffolded structure hosted a month-long festival of performances, workshops, and debates on the unaffordability of housing for young people 

Coop Campus—educational gardening and creative interventions organised by raumlabor and Prinzessinnengärten in the backyard of the Jerusalem V Cemetery in Berlin together with local residents, youth groups, school and university students