An Interview With The Co-Founders Of Cave Bureau: The Nairobi-Based Architecture Firm Redefining Architecture With Sustainability, And Cultural Heritage

cave bureau image from site Cropped

Cave Bureau, an innovative architectural and research firm based in Nairobi, Kenya, is redefining the landscape of architecture and design with a focus on sustainability, indigenous knowledge, and social justice. Co-founded by Stella Mutegi and Kabage Karanja, the firm challenges traditional architectural practices by integrating cultural heritage and ecological considerations into their projects. Cave Bureau has garnered international recognition for its unique approach, highlighted by significant projects such as the rattan reconstruction of the Shimoni Slave Caves and the installation of the Galileo Chini Dome at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Their work extends beyond conventional building projects to include extensive research and thought leadership in the realm of architecture. This approach has enabled them to create spaces that are not only functional but also deeply connected to their environmental and cultural contexts. By prioritizing the use of local materials and traditional building methods, Cave Bureau aims to minimize environmental impact while fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of African heritage.

In this interview, Africans Column engages with the co-founders, Stella Mutegi and Kabage Karanja, to delve into their philosophy, significant projects, and the challenges they face. The conversation explores how Cave Bureau integrates sustainability into their work, their efforts in repatriation and restoration of stolen artifacts, and their vision for the future of architecture in Africa. This dialogue provides insight into the innovative strategies and practices that set Cave Bureau apart in the architectural field.

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A rendering of “Obsidian Rain,” an exhibition inspired by the Mbai Caves, created by Cave Bureau for the Venice Architecture Biennale. Courtesy of Cave Bureau.

Africans Column: To start, could you share some background about yourselves and your work?

Kabage: First, thank you for reaching out to us. We appreciate it. It’s great to see the growth of Africans Column, which we’ve been following. Kudos to you and your team, and best wishes for your continued success. As you probably saw from the interview on Louisiana Channel, which talked about how we came into being, it started abruptly with us being let go from our former employment and, for lack of a better word, fired. That triggered a reflection about whether you are removed from that corporate design space by peers and seniors you highly regard. What does that say about your thinking about architecture?

That moment sparked a long journey of questioning: who’s an architect? What is architecture? Are we architects? Are we going toward architecture or away from it? It’s been almost 10 years now of continuous exploration on the same. This opened multiple ways of thinking about African colonial and postcolonial conditions. Is the architect’s position stable or unstable? We emphasize the unstable part a lot. What does that mean? It was an internal exploration and an external reflection on what we think is wrong and what could be improved in the profession, which is very building obsessed. It’s hard to call yourself an architect if you don’t build buildings. That led to an open journey to think of multiple things, from museums to research. I hope that touches on it.

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Photograph of Shimoni’s coral cave of enslaved Africans. Courtesy of Cave Bureau.

Africans Column: Can you share the core philosophy behind Cave Bureau and how it influences your approach to architecture and urbanism?

Kabage: That’s a good question. We often refer to our practice as an exercise in reverse futurism. This idea of reverse futurism is our way of thinking and working that interconnects multiple strands of black thought, from the origins of our stone tool-making ancestors who began with simple technologies. Stone tools were the better technology. We reflect on this context of the Rift Valley as the origin of the entire human species. We deconstruct readings of civilization, how we emerged, and the pros and cons of so-called human civilization. We’ve been on this journey with multiple theorists like Franz Fanon, reflecting on colonialism and what whiteness and blackness mean, and how both were implicated in the colonial process.

We engage with thinkers like Edouard Glissant and Aimé Césaire, who examine the museological and archaeological processes of understanding African people and the diaspora. Our philosophy ties to different facets and thinkers. Recently, like Achille Mbembe’s thoughts on black reason and Saidiya Hartman’s reflections on active archives. Locally, it relates to pedagogical futures. Our philosophy is influenced by these facets, but we reflect on it from a geological perspective, grounding these thoughts. Architecture in the continent is often seen as a foreign import. Beyond references to Egypt or old African homesteads, it’s perceived not to have roots in Africa. Our philosophy aims to ground this theoretical standpoint, showing it’s always been rooted in the context. The cave is an entity that connects the past, present, and future in architectural thought.

Africans Column: How do these different philosophies influence your projects? Are all your projects linked to showing that architecture also started in Africa, specifically the Rift Valley? How does this philosophy guide your work?

Kabage: It’s not just about saying the origin is here in this continent. More critically, by looking in reverse at that history, you’re looking at the future. Africa has long been seen as the origin point where civilization emerged, and nothing futuristic comes from it. We need to reverse that thinking, to show multiple trains of thought happening across the continent that are deeply theoretical and philosophical, presenting an African and black gaze into the future.

When you look at the devastation of the climate crisis, it says the entire civilization human project has led to planetary destruction. What’s interesting is that the continent, with limited carbon dioxide emissions, has a negligible impact on the global setting. We have always been futurist and remain so because our model of life and existence is the most successful, not extractive, not polluting, not subjugating for the most part. It’s about standing from a position of strength, not weakness. We all came from here, and civilization has forgotten the tools needed to be recalibrated. It’s not about romanticizing the past, but stating we have many tools at play that need to be adjusted to think about where we are as a species.

Africans Column: What drives you to focus on the intersections of architecture, anthropology, and geology in your practice? Why is this approach crucial for understanding and shaping the African city?

Kabage: I think because African culture was always intertwined with natural systems of life and the things we built. We didn’t see them as separate. When thinking about architecture and the city, it’s more of a modern construct to disconnect the environment from what we make and get sustenance from. In indigenous consciousness, and not only in Africa but worldwide, there is a dependence on natural systems. There’s a direct connection between existence, thinking, and being within an environment.

It seemed natural to tie all these aspects into one. Architectural practice shouldn’t be dislocated from the humanities. With the advent of sustainable environmental practices, we realise we need to think cyclically, connecting geology, ecology, anthropology, and communities. More than others, the African city is at the intersection of urban life, rural life, and wilderness. We experience close proximity to natural environments, and it’s about reconnecting these ideas and understanding the tensions.

For example, in Nairobi, immense tensions exist between the natural environment and communities on the outskirts. Wild animals are breaking into the city, which is becoming common. We need to question the boundary between these environments and rationalize it, projecting futuristically what the city needs to adjust to in response to this reality. In essence, it’s about tying everything together, not as separate disciplines but as a unified whole.

Africans Column: Can you discuss the Anthropocene Museum project and how it connects with your work on cultural heritage and community engagement?

Kabage: One of our main projects is the Anthropocene Museum, which we began almost seven years ago by exploring caves. These caves often have communities who are custodians of the sites. We learned a lot from these communities about how they keep the caves safe, take students and tourists down into them, and their cultural practices. We documented this process through interviews, cave analysis, and mapping. The Anthropocene Museum includes music, poetry, and elders talking, connecting to the heritage surrounding these cave sites.

Stella: I can add to that. One project where this cultural heritage was pivotal was when we visited the Shimoni caves at the coast. Knowing the history and then experiencing the caves firsthand is quite impactful. It’s disturbing to think about people losing their freedom, shackled in these caves, then shipped away, unable to communicate. We 3D scanned the caves to create replicas, using the trauma experienced there to inform ways to help other communities.

For instance, we suggested ways for the Kenyan government or Nairobi County Council to address the Maasai trauma of losing their land. Using the form of the Shimoni caves, we proposed new places for the Maasai to water their animals, get veterinary services, and engage in Maasai trading. This project was about giving back and using past trauma to heal.

Africans Column: What specific discoveries have you made through your research into caves around Nairobi, and how do these findings influence your architectural designs and concepts?

Kabage: As Stella highlighted, with projects like the cow corridor, we’re keen on analyzing caves not just as tourist sites but as architectural manifestations of history. We treat them as buildings, showing plans, sizes, and telling the story of what happened within them. This includes natural systems like forests and valleys, analyzed through GIS mapping and drawings, triggering the imagination of these spaces.

Caves, forests, and valleys have been forgotten in architectural thought. By reconnecting with these spaces, we’re jogging our memory of what it means to be inside a space, hear an echo, or see light coming through a cave’s roof. It’s about rehashing these connections and bringing them to the forefront, considering time, our species, and the destruction we’ve caused, prompting us to think again.

Africans Column: How do you engage local communities in your projects, and what role do they play in shaping the outcomes?

Stella: We can’t have a project without the local community. In Kenya, if you go to a new place, you’re viewed as a stranger. The local community must embrace you. We identify key people to speak to, explain our goals, and involve those who can help achieve them. For example, in Shimoni, we connected with the National Museums of Kenya and community elders who helped us understand different aspects of the caves. The local community is vital, holding information and issues that need addressing. Without consultation, we wouldn’t move far.

Kabage: We act as a collective agent, archiving and collecting community aspirations, challenges, and opportunities. We present this information back to the community, sometimes proposing architectural interventions or simply telling their story. Projects are often piecemeal, with funding from institutions, museums, or universities, but now with Anthropocene 10, we have significant funding to address water scarcity for the Maasai on Mount Suswa, building on previous work addressing their challenges.

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Anthropocene Museum 1.0: Concurrently exhibited on the upper ground floor of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (highlighted in orange on the plans below) and the Cube Museum in Kerkrade, Netherlands. Courtesy of Cave Bureau.

Africans Column: How do you finance these projects?

Kabage: Funding varies. For example, Anthropocene 1 was funded by the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum in New York. They invited us to present our research ideas and gave us some funding. Anthropocene 2 involved a short film funded by a New York-based entity. Other projects involved universities, like Anthropocene 5, where we created a curriculum for students to explore caves.

It’s been piecemeal funding, but Anthropocene 10 is our first significant funding to address water scarcity for the Maasai on Mount Suswa. It’s a culmination of engaging the community, identifying challenges, and presenting potential solutions.

Africans Column: Can you discuss some of your most significant projects, like the rattan reconstruction of the Shimoni Slave Caves and the Galileo Chini Dome installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale? What makes these projects stand out in your work?

Stella: Actually, the rattan reconstruction of the Shimoni Slave Caves was part of an exhibition we did at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. This was probably our most significant exhibition because it showcased all the Anthropocene museums. Other exhibitions we’ve done have been just one iteration, like the one at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, which was Anthropocene One. But the Louisiana exhibition was a culmination of all of them, including Anthropocene Ten. It was our biggest exhibition with many components, and the rattan reconstruction was the largest installation. We had many ideas for representing the Shimoni caves, but each suggestion faced restrictions until we collaborated with Phil Ayers from the Royal Danish Academy. We ended up with 300 square meters of woven cave. The series at Louisiana was called The Architect’s Studio, and we were the last ones in that series, making it a significant opportunity to show what the Anthropocene Museum is all about in one space.

Kabage: To add to that, it was important because it was the first institution we engaged with critically about their colonial history and connection to slavery. The Danish were involved with the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and transported around 100,000 slaves. It was nice that they were willing to discuss that history. The museum provokes questions about colonial histories and legacies, reflecting on past traumas and stolen objects. It also addresses reparations and what repair means. We explored their collection, discussed that history, and it was well-received. The scale and complexity of the exhibition made it a significant experiment for us.

Stella: We 3D scanned the Door of No Return as our entrance into the exhibition, confronting them with their history of slavery. As Kabage said, it’s hard for them to grapple with that history because they’re still dealing with their colonial past.

Africans Column: Can you talk about your efforts in repatriation and restoring stolen artifacts?

Kabage: We haven’t been successful with specific pieces yet, but we had an opportunity a few years back when an art collector in Abu Dhabi approached us. They had a piece of art by an American artist related to our heritage and the figure Tom Mboya, who was assassinated. This individual wanted to donate it to the Kenyan government for free, but the government showed no interest. So, we used this as an exercise in engaging institutions for repatriation. We coordinated the shipment of this piece from New York to Denmark and then back to Kenya, where it’s now in our studio. We’ve learned the logistical process and how to engage entities to bring things back. Repatriation is complex. It’s not just about state-to-state engagement; these objects were removed from community contexts. We need to engage communities and understand what bringing an object back means. As architects, we can facilitate this process by speaking to the communities and thinking about how the object will be reintegrated.

Africans Column: Is it possible to engage museums in Kenya to appreciate these artifacts before repatriation, or is it difficult?

Kabage: It’s very political, but we are open to those engagements. By law, you cannot deal with another museum directly; you have to engage with the local museum. The National Museums of Kenya is the authority that facilitates that process. Our role would be to mediate because our governments often have a harsh and outdated way of dealing with such complexities. We suffer from a lack of understanding in heritage management. We hope to be a part of the process.

Africans Column: Can you explain your indigenous museum model and how it differs from traditional Eurocentric museums?

Stella: Yes, it’s clear. We had a conversation with Lesley Loko, who asked some South Africans what a museum meant to them or the word for museum in their local dialect. They couldn’t think of a word for museum. When she described it as a place where you go to remember things, they were perplexed because there was no such place in their culture. In a Eurocentric museum, you go to look at historical objects, but for them, there was no place to remember things.

So, you can see that in an African context, a museum is very foreign. The Benin bronzes and other artifacts were everyday objects, not glorified in a glass box. They were used every day. For us, looking at ancestral knowledge is key. For example, in Suswa, we look at how ancestors dealt with dry seasons or steam from the ground. We then use our knowledge as architects to address these issues using ancestral knowledge. That’s one way we see an African museum, where objects used daily are given significance by their practical use rather than being old and curious.

Kabage: Exactly, museums were non-entities in our cultures. Culture was everywhere and part of life. You didn’t need a building to show what culture was. Our Anthropocene Museum has never needed a building, yet it has achieved small but significant things in communicating stories. The museum should facilitate stories over time about something that happened, whether an object, poem, or story. You don’t need a building for it to exist, which ties into our ancestral spiritual logics. Important things were happening beyond the physical world, like when grandparents went to the forest and had elaborate stories. We’ve lost those interesting stories. Sometimes, a building is just a borrowed idea from the West and a colonial notion of celebrating culture.

Africans Column: What measures do you take to ensure your projects are environmentally sustainable and do not negatively impact the natural surroundings?

Kabage: First of all, by not building so much. Building by its nature is environmentally unfriendly. Even if you try to make it green, limiting how much you build is key. We often ask clients if they really need a building or if there’s another solution. Sometimes, the need is driven by capitalism, excess, or ego. Addressing that from the start is more sustainable than just building a green building.

From the beginning, we challenge the necessity of the project. It’s not about saying sustainable building is bad, but if a project isn’t needed, avoiding it saves a lot of resources. When we do build, we focus on indigenous materials and local building techniques. For instance, in Nairobi, we don’t need air conditioning due to the climate, and we promote this in our designs. To date, we haven’t had a heavily air-conditioned building.

Africans Column: Can you elaborate on how you engage clients when starting a project?

Kabage: We engage clients with many questions to understand their needs deeply. If the project truly requires a building, we start with the local environment. We consider multiple environmental factors to create buildings that rely less on heavy energy systems and imported materials while ensuring a good ambient environment for the occupants.

Stella: To add to what Kabage said, at CAVE, we have a concept called reverse futurism. Our ancestors lived harmoniously with the environment without being extractive and destructive. Learning from them helps us use local materials in a non-extractive way, aligning with how they did it.

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Mogadishu House Designed by Cave Bureau

Africans Column: Do you primarily focus on research, or do you also build structures?

Kabage: We do build, but we don’t often showcase our buildings. It’s partly an experiment and partly due to apprehension. Many architectural firms showcase their buildings, but we want to present architecture as more than just structures. Our website shows ideas about buildings, but we focus on broader concepts.

We argue that architecture should communicate more than just construction. By not showcasing every building, we attract contemplative clients who think deeply about their needs. It’s not about being different for the sake of it but about aligning with our sustainable values. The traditional approach of showcasing buildings can perpetuate more construction and environmental impact, which we aim to avoid.

Africans Column: If you don’t showcase your buildings, how do you attract clients?

Stella: It’s tough and has funded our research for a long time. The traditional architectural practice has largely funded the Anthropocene Museum until now. We are starting to attract more funding, but for a long time, our traditional practice paid the bills.

Africans Column: What is your long-term vision for Cave Bureau, and how do you see your work evolving over the next decade?

Kabage: Both Stella and I aspire for CAVE to be financially independent and stable. We aim for our research work to become financially sustainable as a business model. We’re testing a different business model in the architectural space in Nairobi and Africa, which hasn’t been tried before.

We’ve been exhibiting ideas globally, and there’s growing interest in architectural practice beyond just building structures. We aspire for this trajectory to grow and become a recognised model for thinking about architecture unconventionally. We’re in the early days of experimenting, pushing beyond industry confines, and we hope this will yield positive results in the future.

Conclusion

The interview with Stella Mutegi and Kabage Karanja of Cave Bureau offers a compelling look into a practice that is reshaping the understanding of architecture in Africa. Their commitment to sustainability, cultural preservation, and innovative thinking highlights the potential for architecture to be a force for positive change. Through projects like the Shimoni Slave Caves reconstruction and their extensive research initiatives, Cave Bureau is demonstrating how the built environment can honor and reflect the richness of African heritage.

Africans Column’s discussion with the co-founders underscores the importance of questioning conventional practices and seeking solutions that are both environmentally responsible and culturally relevant. As Cave Bureau continues to push boundaries and inspire new ways of thinking about architecture and urbanism, their work serves as a model for how to integrate tradition with modernity in meaningful and impactful ways.

Looking ahead, the vision of Cave Bureau to create financially independent and sustainable architectural models promises to influence the future of the industry significantly. By advocating for a more inclusive and thoughtful approach to design, Stella Mutegi and Kabage Karanja are paving the way for a new era in architecture that celebrates both people and the planet.

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