Kabage Karanja had one in all his earliest and most profound experiences when, as a teenage member of Hodari Boys, a youth mentoring membership, he camped within the Suswa Caves, northwest of Nairobi, Kenya.
It was a particular reminiscence for Mr. Karanja, now an architect, partly as a result of “I bear in mind waking up in the midst of the night time,” he mentioned, “and there was a Maasai warrior simply standing there, watching us sleep.”
He was additionally fascinated by the concept people’ first forays into structure occurred in caves, so when he, Stella Mutegi and Balmoi Abe (who has since left their partnership) began their very own agency, they named it Cave_Bureau.
This week Cave_Bureau will develop into the primary Kenyan agency to make its debut on the Venice Structure Biennale with the exhibition “Obsidian Rain” within the central pavilion.
For the present, 1,600 obsidian stones gathered from Gilgil, Kenya, will cling at exact heights from a timber-and-net construction to duplicate a piece of the roof of the Mbai caves on the outskirts of Nairobi, Mr. Karanja’s hometown. Inside, guests can relaxation on logs from an African cedar tree, flown in from Kenya as nicely.
“We had been shocked that we had been invited” to participate in Venice, Mr. Karanja mentioned. “We had been clearly over the moon.”
The caves are essential in Kenya’s current historical past; Mau Mau fighters within the Nineteen Fifties would collect there to cover and to regroup after clashes with the British in Nairobi. It was, Mr. Karanja mentioned, a spot of “deep contemplation” for the resistance fighters “to think about what the African state of the long run could be.” He added, “It’s an area of congress.”
Cave_Bureau can also be doing a separate collaboration for the biennale with the Kenyan photographer Osborne Macharia, now based mostly in Canada, within the Arsenale part.
The agency’s work over the previous couple of years falls below what Carolyn F. Strauss, founder and director of the Dutch-based Sluggish Analysis Lab, calls “a brand new wave” in structure. As a substitute of constructing the subsequent skyscraper, these architects focus extra on the exploratory and theoretical.
“They posit the cave as this house of reflection,” Ms. Strauss mentioned, “but additionally as an area of resistance, and cultivating practices of resilience was for me simply type of charming.”
Pandemic journey restrictions have prevented Mr. Karanja and Ms. Mutegi from mounting the set up themselves in Venice, although Mr. Karanja will attend the opening. As a substitute, they dispatched in-depth manuals — “it’s sophisticated,” Ms. Mutegi mentioned — to engineers in Venice to suit all the weather collectively.
“Obsidian Rain” grew out of Cave_Bureau’s bigger long-term analysis and exhibition program, the Anthropocene Museum. It’s named for what Nationwide Geographic has known as “an unofficial unit of geologic time,” beginning across the Industrial Revolution, when human exercise started having a considerable affect on the earth’s ecosystems and local weather.
The agency’s architectural, historic and anthropological work has included the whole lot from 3-D mapping of Shimoni slave caves on the coast of Kenya, the place 18th-century East Africans had been chained to the partitions whereas awaiting transport to Zanzibar’s slave markets, to a video exploring geothermal extraction and the displacement of Maasai individuals within the Rift Valley.
“We’re simply making an attempt to replicate on that geological time period, the Anthropocene, the brand new age of man,” Mr. Karanja mentioned. “Making an attempt to look, clearly, on the colonial period, the historical past of this age that we reside in that has been the defining issue of the place we’re as a civilization. And we really feel having one other type of layer and a voice over that narrative is definitely very crucial.”
Cave_Bureau has been slowly however steadily gaining worldwide curiosity with the Anthropocene Museum mission, which in 2019 was featured in a joint exhibition on the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial in New York and Dice Design Museum within the Netherlands (which closed completely this 12 months).
This 12 months, apart from preparing for Venice, the architects had been additionally requested to do a movie for the World Round Summit, which was offered by the World Round, a brand new nonprofit group targeted on architectural tradition.
“What I like about them is that they have this company that could be very contemporaneous to how persons are fascinated by structure as we speak,” mentioned Beatrice Galilee, the co-founder of the World Round and the previous curator of latest structure and design on the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork in New York.
The agency shouldn’t be a lot designing buildings, she mentioned, as “actually making an attempt to deconstruct the self-discipline itself and problem our expectations of what architects do, what our structure ought to be, what ought to it appear to be and who’s answerable for constructing our world.
However they do make buildings. The British-trained Mr. Karanja, 41, and the Australian-educated Ms. Mutegi, 42, met after they labored for a big architectural agency in Nairobi, and their jobs had been eradicated on the identical day.
As a result of Nairobi was based by British colonial powers as a segregated metropolis on the flip of the twentieth century, it stays very a lot divided. That has led to tensions through the years.
A lot of Cave_Bureau’s work, Mr. Karanja mentioned, is to “use initiatives as a manner of bringing the territories collectively.” That has included serving to design a part of a ladies’ faculty in Kibera, East Africa’s largest slum, in addition to Floating Zebra, a neighborhood open-space mission in Dandora, a casual settlement that abuts town’s largest rubbish dump.
And whereas the architects do get pleasure from brick-and-mortar initiatives — they’re at work on a non-public residence in Uganda — Ms. Mutegi mentioned that if that they had the financing, they may at some point focus totally on their analysis initiatives.
“To place it evenly,” she mentioned, “our non-public purchasers pay for our analysis.”
And it’s initiatives just like the Anthropocene Museum which have captured the creativeness of many who’ve come throughout Cave_Bureau’s work.
“They don’t seem to be solely speaking in regards to the situations of Nairobi, and the sort of anthropological and geological context there,” mentioned Gabriel Kozlowski, a Brazilian arch itect who’s assistant curator at this 12 months’s biennale, “however they’re making an attempt to extrapolate this discourse to debate extra typically questions of how we reside in relation to rural and concrete settings, questions of racial imbalance and the best way to set up equal rights in our society.”