BY Jessica Loudis in Opinion | 04 AUG 21
Featured in
Issue 220

Facing an Uncertain Climate Future, What Can Education Do Differently?

A piratical project in Berlin re-imagines the space – and sustainability – for schools

BY Jessica Loudis in Opinion | 04 AUG 21

In 2014, in an overwhelming fick dich (fuck you) to commercial developers and city planners, nearly 200,000 Berliners voted to retain the public park that had been created on the former site of Tempelhof Airport. Four years later, a smaller but no less ambitious urban intervention was quietly launched nearby, in a cement-bottomed outdoor lagoon that was built in the 1930s to collect runoff water from the airfield. Until the architectural collective raumlaborberlin set up the Floating University in 2018, the space had been closed to the public for more than 80 years, allowing what curator Gilly Karjevsky described to me as a ‘non-natural natural environment’ to flourish. Surrounded by forest and comprising a series of DIY wooden assemblages built on the water – the largest of which was originally designed by Japanese architecture studio Atelier Bow-Wow in 2015 for an exhibition at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt – the structure resembled nothing so much as a wooden spaceship that had peacefully settled upon a swamp.

When I went to visit the site on a chilly day in March this year, muddy dogs were romping in the shallow water, construction workers milled about the entrance, and Karjevsky and architect Rosario Talevi were preparing for the upcoming season. Within a month, they explained, the space would be outfitted with a series of platforms alluding to a beach, a cinema and a ‘mushroom bar’ with walls made of mycelium and a built-in water filtration system. Despite ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, there was nonetheless a sense of urgency. From May, the site would host thousands of guests and speakers for programming around urban practice and climate care, seminars on elemental movement and deep listening, immersive installations – including one featuring gongs made in Wuhan – and courses in which students would teach each other. Now in its third year, the project, retitled Floating e.V., is a mix of outdoor laboratory, alternative community space and experiment in radical pedagogy; or, as George Kafka described it in a 2018 article for Metropolis, ‘part pirate ship and part Princeton’.

Urban Forest, 2019. Courtesy: raumlaborberlin and Floating e.V., Berlin; photograph: Lena Giovanazzi

Originally planned as a nine-month project, Floating brought in 25 uni­versities as well as hundreds of artists and academics for workshops and seminars. Launched a year before the centenary of the Bauhaus, the programming focused heavily on pedagogy and placemaking. (Asked about institutional precedents, Karjevsky and Talevi cited Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the School of Valparaíso in Chile.) To that end, Keller Easterling and Eyal Weizman were among a group of architects who led a three-day course on community design and big data, while theatre director Frédérique Aït-Touati and philo­sopher Bruno Latour gave a joint performance-lecture. In photos taken that summer, a universe away from the airbrushed scenes pictured in glossy university brochures, students explored the ‘campus’ on rafts or trudged around in rubber boots. It looked like fun.

Though the project wasn’t intended to be permanent, plans changed when the lease was extended for five years. So, at the end of that first season, participants were invited back for a closing symposium and to discuss the project’s future. A core group formed an association, which included experts in biodiversity system manage­ment and chemical engineering, electricians and artists, as well as specialists in what the project’s website listed as ‘financial acrobatics’ and ‘mathematics of welcome’. They created a non-profit, dropped ‘university’ from their name after Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research threatened them with a €100,000 fine, and set about planning the following year.

In Germany, bureaucratic concerns are never far from the surface, and Floating’s role and purpose are bound by how Berlin administers arts funding. The project fits within a local lineage of intermediary spaces – sites like the collectively run Prinzessinnengarten and the nightlife venue Bar 25, which have been granted temporary leases for creative purposes (and, to the interest of the Berlin government, keep out squatters). This year, Floating received money from the Berlin arts council under a new funding scheme for ‘urban practice’, a genre that Karjevsky characterizes as ‘something between spatial and social practices’, while being quick to add that the definition is still very much a work-in-progress. After more than a year of winnowing human interaction down to a minimum, with almost all of this season’s participants being Berlin-based, this summer will likely double as a coming-out for the city’s local art scene. 

Climate Care festival, 2019. Courtesy: raumlaborberlin and Floating e.V., Berlin; photograph: Lena Giovanazzi

But how does an association that has defined itself in opposition to institutions think about the process of institutionalizing? The main question, says Karjevsky, is: ‘What kind of organization are we forming and how do we stay responsive to external and internal changes?’ One way is simply by paying attention to what’s going on. Over the past three years, organizers have both responded to changes in the space itself (an exceptionally dry summer, occasional flooding) as well as to larger paradigm shifts: the coronavirus pandemic, increasing global awareness of climate change, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and the process of decolonizing various discourses. 

This summer, Floating is hosting a second edition of its Climate Care festival, first held in 2019 as a way to explore the ethics of care alongside the challenges presented by climate change. The 2021 iteration will focus on ‘rewilding’ – the idea that a natural space can be restored to the state it existed in before humans arrived and screwed everything up. There’s a practical motivation for this: in the coming years, the overseers of the Tempelhof lagoon want to rewild the site and remove the concrete floor. This won’t, of course, be a return to nature, but could be taken as a metaphor for the project itself: yet another man-made intervention that, over the years, has simply become part of the landscape.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 220 with the headline 'Float On'.

Main image: Architecture for Floating e.V.’s inaugural year, 2018. Courtesy: raumlaborberlin; photograph: Victoria Tomaschko

Jessica Loudis is features editor of Rest of World, an online magazine of technology and culture in the non-Western world. She lives in Berlin, Germany..