New York Times: An Early Fascination With Caves Leads to a World Stage

Kabage Karanja had one of his earliest and most profound experiences when, as a teenage member of Hodari Boys, a youth mentoring club, he camped in the Suswa Caves, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya.

It was a special memory for Mr. Karanja, now an architect, partly because “I remember waking up in the middle of the night,” he said, “and there was a Maasai warrior just standing there, watching us sleep.”

He was also fascinated by the idea that humans’ first forays into architecture happened in caves, so when he, Stella Mutegi and Balmoi Abe (who has since left their partnership) started their own firm, they named it Cave_Bureau.

This week Cave_Bureau will become the first Kenyan firm to make its debut at the Venice Architecture Biennale with the exhibition “Obsidian Rain” in the central pavilion.

For the show, 1,600 obsidian stones gathered from Gilgil, Kenya, will hang at precise heights from a timber-and-net structure to replicate a section of the roof of the Mbai caves on the outskirts of Nairobi, Mr. Karanja’s hometown. Inside, visitors can rest on logs from an African cedar tree, flown in from Kenya as well.

“We were shocked that we were invited” to take part in Venice, Mr. Karanja said. “We were obviously over the moon.”

The caves are important in Kenya’s recent history; Mau Mau fighters in the 1950s would gather there to hide and to regroup after clashes with the British in Nairobi. It was, Mr. Karanja said, a place of “deep contemplation” for the resistance fighters “to consider what the African state of the future would be.” He added, “It’s a space of congress.”

The firm’s work over the last few years falls under what Carolyn F. Strauss, founder and director of the Dutch-based Slow Research Lab, calls “a new wave” in architecture. Instead of building the next skyscraper, these architects focus more on the exploratory and theoretical.

“They posit the cave as this space of reflection,” Ms. Strauss said, “but also as a space of resistance, and cultivating practices of resilience was for me just sort of captivating.”

Pandemic travel restrictions have prevented Mr. Karanja and Ms. Mutegi from mounting the installation themselves in Venice, though Mr. Karanja will attend the opening. Instead, they dispatched in-depth manuals — “it’s complicated,” Ms. Mutegi said — to engineers in Venice to fit all the elements together.

“Obsidian Rain” grew out of Cave_Bureau’s larger long-term research and exhibition program, the Anthropocene Museum. It is named for what National Geographic has called “an unofficial unit of geologic time,” starting around the Industrial Revolution, when human activity began having a substantial impact on the earth’s ecosystems and climate.

The firm’s architectural, historical and anthropological work has included everything from 3-D mapping of Shimoni slave caves on the coast of Kenya, where 18th-century East Africans were chained to the walls while awaiting transport to Zanzibar’s slave markets, to a video exploring geothermal extraction and the displacement of Maasai people in the Rift Valley.

“We are just trying to reflect on that geological term, the Anthropocene, the new age of man,” Mr. Karanja said. “Trying to look, obviously, at the colonial era, the history of this age that we live in that has been the defining factor of where we are as a civilization. And we feel having another sort of layer and a voice over that narrative is actually very critical.”

Cave_Bureau has been slowly but steadily gaining international interest with the Anthropocene Museum project, which in 2019 was featured in a joint exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in New York and Cube Design Museum in the Netherlands (which closed permanently this year).

This year, aside from getting ready for Venice, the architects were also asked to do a film for the World Around Summit, which was presented by the World Around, a new nonprofit organization focused on architectural culture.

“What I like about them is they have this agency that is very contemporaneous to how people are thinking about architecture today,” said Beatrice Galilee, the co-founder of the World Around and the former curator of contemporary architecture and design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The firm is not so much designing buildings, she said, as “really trying to deconstruct the discipline itself and challenge our expectations of what architects do, what our architecture should be, what should it look like and who is responsible for building our world.

But they do make buildings. The British-trained Mr. Karanja, 41, and the Australian-educated Ms. Mutegi, 42, met when they worked for a large architectural firm in Nairobi, and their jobs were eliminated on the same day. Because Nairobi was founded by British colonial powers as a segregated city at the turn of the 20th century, it remains very much divided. That has led to tensions over the years.

So much of Cave_Bureau’s work, Mr. Karanja said, is to “use projects as a way of bringing the territories together.” That has included helping design part of a girls’ school in Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum, as well as Floating Zebra, a community open-space project in Dandora, an informal settlement that abuts the city’s largest garbage dump.

And while the architects do enjoy brick-and-mortar projects — they are at work on a private residence in Uganda — Ms. Mutegi said that if they had the financing, they might one day focus primarily on their research projects.

“To put it lightly,” she said, “our private clients pay for our research.”
Venice Architecture Biennale

And it is projects like the Anthropocene Museum that have captured the imagination of many who have come across Cave_Bureau’s work.

“They are not only talking about the conditions of Nairobi, and the kind of anthropological and geological context there,” said Gabriel Kozlowski, a Brazilian arch itect who is assistant curator at this year’s biennale, “but they are trying to extrapolate this discourse to discuss more generally questions of how we live in relation to rural and urban settings, questions of racial imbalance and how to establish equal rights in our society.”

Photos: 1)  “Obsidian Rain”;  2) Stella Mutegi and Kabage Karenja; 3) “Floating Zebra” in Dandora. (All photos courtesy Cave?Bureau)