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Cave_bureau’s Anthropocene Museum: a Critical and Pedagogic Project on NYC’s Indigenous Caves
A conversation with Cave_bureau on their pedagogic approach along with their critical involvement with the subject of caves and the Anthropocene.

KoozArch interviews Cave_bureau’s Kabage Karanja and Stella Mutegi to discuss the office’s pedagogic approach along with its continuous multidisciplinary and critical involvement with the subject of caves and the Anthropocene, introducing their radical position towards a more-than-human history of architecture. In this conversation they outline the specificities of nuanced oral African readings of a place and people, along with their overcoming of anti-colonial theory to embrace the planetary debate on the living and non-living, with a focus on geology and anthropogenic traces in caves. They also expand on their post-pandemic, critical pedagogic agenda brought forward at Columbia University’s GSAPP, with a focus on two caves in New York, in the Island of Manhattan Island, specifically Ramble Cave in Central Park and the cave at Inwood Hill Park.

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KOOZ We would like to start with an overly simplified, maybe provocative, yet crucial question: why should architects care about caves? Why do you speak of them as if they were architectural monuments or valuable examples of architectural heritage?

STELLA MUTEGI Caves are an integral part of humankind as they are the first known shelter that man inhabited. All other forms of the built environment originate from the cave and are vast improvements from what caves offer or do not offer in terms of comfort level for inhabitation. Caves have a rich historical context that architects can learn from that would inform how they shape and rethink the built environment through design. There have been places where there has been trauma, resistance, celebration, rebirth and so on – there is a vast spectrum of what caves have been and continue to be even in the present day.

Knowledge of historical events that occurred in caves can significantly alter a project that was conceived without that knowledge of those events. We, therefore, look at caves as archives that inform the present and future of architecture and in so doing acknowledge that they are, indeed, an architectural heritage.

We look at caves as archives that inform the present and future of architecture and in so doing acknowledge that they are, indeed, an architectural heritage.

KABAGE KARANJA This question also speaks to the heart of our free radical thoughts about the more-than-human history of architecture, and by extension from an indigenous grounding of animism that overturns the culturally and environmentally toxic distinctions between the animate and inanimate, living and non-living. It is here we postulate that our earliest human and hominin experiences of caves were architectural in the simplest form of consciousness. Caves, in fact, had and still have an imprint on what it felt like and meant to be inside a space of enclosure. In these caves we encountered a multitude of creatures, materials and atmospheres that we then consciously or subconsciously metamorphosed geologically to produce the artefact of architecture itself; an unrefined geology that needed and still needs constant reference back to the source. This is, at least for us, the logical way to loosely contemplate the metaphysical birth of architecture, if not at least stretch its epistemological roots back in time a little.

This also speaks to the heart of our free radical thoughts about the more-than-human history of architecture, and by extension from an indigenous grounding of animism.

It goes without saying that caves and our shared more-than-human relationship of being with them has been trivialised and misunderstood for too long. A disjointing of ourselves from both the natural phenomena of these geological structures and more so traumatically, from the broader natural environment that we are deeply a part of. The climate crisis underscored by our so-called age of the human, the Anthropocene, narrowly contextualises this destructive broken relationship with the world that we continually perpetuate using our overly human, self-centred canon of so-called civilization and by extension architecture.

Here in then lies the vast voids of architectural records of heritage and equilibrium missing across the entire planet, that have neither been surveyed, drawn, nor modelled for our consciousness to see in return. From our early homo sapiens caves in the cradle of mankind and, indeed, in different parts of the world, to recent slave holding caves in East Africa, to desecrated Native American burial caves in America, these, among many other sites of historical importance and heritage around the world require geo-architectural unearthing for the monumental task of cultural re-inscription in this age.

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KOOZ Here are some open, theoretical questions on your African and Black reading of the Anthropocene: What differentiates your reading from existing Western, Eurocentric approaches? Have you identified gaps in the existing knowledge or practices? How is it contributing to the current architectural debate?

KK As synonymous as it may sound, we feel that it is not so much about the need to establish differentiation and distinction as it is about a need to realign and completely encompass the complex collective human and non-human reading of this age in a unifying way. This, in fact, has already been critiqued, qualified and explored by many authors and thinkers such as Achille Mbembe, Kathryn Yusoff, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Amitav Ghosh, Dipesh Chakarabaty, among many others, that have not only factored in the imperial and colonial problem in looking at this proposed new epoch, but also importantly considered that the more-than-human life on Earth bears its weight and complexity heavily on our often-narrow view and presentation of the age we live in. This is especially the case when reflecting on the fact that humans make up only 0.01% of all the biomass on the planet.

The glaring deficiencies in the way this geological epoch is packaged has been for us complicated, at the very least, by the modes of tribal and Indigenous life across the Global South. By their very nature, these models over time have resisted the ongoing settler, imperial and colonial anthropocentrism, continually confronting ongoing extraction, erasure, suppression and loss of indigenous resources. Acts that we read architecturally as counter anthropogenic, or it could be said counter “human” - or for that matter some humans - which is naturally the site of critique in addressing how this age of so-called civilization came about. Indigenous territories where knowledge of innate equilibrium with our natural systems were and often still are the mainstay of existence and being, that have and still are being very quickly dismantled in the name of progress and construed development. Architecture more than any other profession has been both conjoined and deeply complicit in scaffolding this systemic fracture. Caves, for us at least, can offer the critical route of reversing this destructive rupture in both theoretical and practical terms. So if we are to cut to the chase the cultural and historical underpinning of our civilization, it is not only being unsettled here but on the verge of being dismantled, in need of reinscription; so this is not only from our African and Black perspective, but more so as evidenced, from a more-than-human one.

Indigenous territories where knowledge of innate equilibrium with our natural systems were and often still are the mainstay of existence and being, that have and still are being very quickly dismantled in the name of progress and construed development.

SM One of the main divergent points is that at the start of the Industrial revolution, when the Anthropocene is perceived to have accelerated, Africa was under colonial rule and many African nations were in the struggle for independence from the various colonial rulers. In Europe, at that same time, the emerging industries were being fed by extracted raw materials from a largely imprisoned Africa.

There was, therefore, a large contribution to the Anthropocene from the West when there was little or none from the Global South. That being said, the Global South has caught up in contributing but not to the same magnitude as some of the Western countries that have the highest CO2 emissions.

There has to be a concerted, grassroots effort to globally educate on the Anthropocene and its effects on humanity. In a more specific area Architecture and the built environment are huge perpetrators of climate change. The world at large is full of abandoned buildings that could be repurposed to different use instead of extracting more from the earth and as a result, emitting more harm into the atmosphere. Architects have an obligation to the environment and should, therefore, be more conscious of the design decisions they make in the name of projects.

At the start of the Industrial revolution [...] Africa was under colonial rule [...]. In Europe, at that same time, the emerging industries were being fed by extracted raw materials from a largely imprisoned Africa.

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KOOZ To what extent can human and non-human histories converge in the Museum you envisioned? Which new narratives emerged or will emerge from this encounter? And, finally, what differences can be drawn from the existing Western “warehouses of stolen loots”?

KK We honestly believe there is no limit to the convergence of these histories of the human and non-human, with an untapped knowledge gap. It is no longer healthy to detach the two, and to this extent we clearly see that it is not just a climate crisis we are facing, but also a crisis in culture and, thus, of the imagination as Amitav Ghosh so critically puts it. This is especially the case when thinking of Museums as places of concealed cultures of oppression, extraction and one-sided knowledge production. While today the often largest and most complicit museums are working to confront their imperial and colonial pasts of conquest and hoarding of stolen loot, the partial process of redressing the repatriation of stolen artefacts is at best halfheartedly enacted, and fraught with malignant condescension. The fact that architecture was and still is the very bastion and tectonic site of this cultural depravity, this lends us to unpack the material and immaterial nature of this malaise in its history. It is a history where it was reinforced for centuries the myth of distinguishing the human, and indeed classification of some as non-human, with the burden it brought as it is at the core of the canon we continuously confront.

New encounters, again, are limitless as we read the multitude of ways of being in the biosphere. The reading of the museum epilogue in this regard “naturally” breaks the bounds of a single building artefact, to the reading of community lands and villages of origin where extraction took place. Here the warehouses of stolen loot are dismantled from within, through the yet to be completed reverse curation of artefacts of restitution that are being reluctantly returned, and with little reparation if any. The moral reckoning currently at play is enacted across vast geological territories of the returning footprints of former extractive powers. Light footprints, it should be said, of thought and practice that will eventually grow in scale and intensity, the impacts will reverberate and render the age-old Museum institution unrecognisable, that is if the latent seats of “soft” power allows it to happen.

It is a history where it was reinforced for centuries the myth of distinguishing the human, and indeed classification of some as non-human, with the burden it brought as it is at the core of the canon we continuously confront.

SM They would converge at a point where there is mutual coexistence. Our museum is not necessarily in the built form and, therefore, there is a deliberate effort on our part to ensure that we, as humans - and as the ones with the power over the non-vocal non-humans - intentionally consider every aspect of the non-human and how it affects both species.

One of the biggest differences is accessibility to what the Museum is showcasing at any given point in time. There are important impediments to accessing Western museums for people coming from the Global South. Visiting as a tourist is usually not good enough of a reason to get a visa to many Western countries. Another difference pertains to the interaction with the displayed items, especially when we think about how the artefacts were used prior to being translocated.

As previously mentioned, we aim to engage communities more with our proposed museum. The latter may not even be termed as a museum when one thinks of the conventional description of what a museum is. We want to let communities have a significant impact on how they interact with issues or even the physical artefacts presented to them.

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KOOZ It seems that within your Anthropocene Museum are embedded not only multiple timelines - from the prehistoric and geological to the Modern colonial, up to the current climate crisis - but also multiple “players”: humans, artefacts, nature. How does the Museum synthesise all these layers and relationships (from the inanimate to the collective, from identity to ecological concerns)?

SM When we look at the Anthropocene, it is hard to isolate its timeline from its perceived inception and from human activities involved in its description. Along with that, one also cannot ignore its effects on the various participants, both human and non-human. Given that broad interaction, one can go quite deeply into only one aspect of any of them we, therefore, look at how these players and layers in the Anthropocene are interacting with each other, and their intertwined relationships to then form an intricate pattern to bring all these layers and relationships together in a cohesive way.

KK We often attribute this to the fact that the Anthropocene Museum, in most part, is not confined or constrained to a single building artefact. We intentionally commit to consider the operations and practice of architecture on a wider geological plane of ages, epochs and intervals of lineage and continuity. Its operation is amorphous across the world. A roaming museum we like to call it, that inhabits varying spaces and conditions, from the literal prehistoric cave sites to contemporary museum buildings as both sites of cultural critique and ontological reimagining. The exhibits and installations of engagement that we produce operate on a discursive plane of power relations between what the audience is presented and how the local communities represented themselves.

Here we engage directly with communities on their terms and at their sites of historical and present importance, critically taking the Museum directly to the people, where we stage forums of cultural discussion, distillation and unearthing to then return the oral knowledge and ideas back to the broader public to present these pressing issues and concerns that often fall on the wayside of prevailing sterile museum institutions, exhibitions and collections.

We intentionally commit to consider the operations and practice of architecture on a wider geological plane of ages, epochs and intervals of lineage and continuity.

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KOOZ A few questions on the multidisciplinary nature of your work: how does architecture mediate between the various actors and disciplinary approaches embedded in your research? Can you please also expand on the role that your architectural training, along with architectural/survey technologies has played in your research and practice? Finally, what prompted the use of different media for the communication of the shortcomings of your research, for instance, why storytelling? Why did you choose video/art installations etc?

KKArchitecture by nature is a multidisciplinary pulling together all manner of experts and voices to the fore. Our Anthropocene Museum research is no exception, we needed to get in touch with experts such as community elders, museum curators, environmentalists and scientists indeed. We can share an interesting story about the time we reached out to Jan Zalasiewicz, the British geologist who put forth the first proposal to adopt the Anthropocene Epoch as a formal geological interval - when in 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of Geologic Sciences (IUGS) voted to recommend the Anthropocene as a formal geologic epoch. In our email to him we spoke about our work and interest to be in touch. To our surprise he replied a few days later and put us in touch with his colleagues who travelled to Kenya a few months later to investigate one of the largest landfill sites in Africa, the Dandora Dump site. We continue to keep in touch and think of ways to collaborate and grow the broader research pool, that we find invaluable.

Our architectural training was critical to this mindset; we were always tutored to ground ourselves in solid field research and expert consultation to unpack the specific projects we were working on. Equally, we were trained to see survey as more than an innocuous act aimed at seeing what was happening on the ground, but rather as a dynamic exercise in using the power of cultural reading and representation that becomes a productive epistemological act between what we see and what we use to imagine. Without distinction, storytelling is also part of the survey exercise that begins to touch on the more nuanced oral African readings of a place and people. It then lends itself well towards directing our propositions that manifest in what might be called art installations, events of provocation and critical pedagogy.Again, here expanding the seemingly constrained bounds of architectural influence and impact.

Without distinction, storytelling is also part of the survey exercise that begins to touch on the more nuanced oral African readings of a place and people.

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SM Going back to the first question, the cave in its morphology is architectural in nature. In his tribute to the late Lebbeus Woods in The Guardian Geoff Manaugh said that “architecture will always be more heroic than constructing buildings resistant to catastrophic rearrangements of the earth, or throwing colossal spans across canyons and mountain gorges, or turning a hostile landscape into someone's home. Architecture is about the lack of stability and how to address it. Architecture is about the void and how to cross it. Architecture is about inhospitability and how to live within it.”

The Anthropocene is a time of instability and with our research we are unpacking this instability in order to address it. This has led us into looking at the past, specifically to our more recent colonial past because it explains most of the instability that exists in our country. This instability and inhospitability that climate change has brought about is forcing many people to question it because it is uncomfortable and find ways on how we act on it and combat it. This is, in simple terms, what we are doing with the research.

To follow up Kabage’s thoughts, our architectural training has enabled us to look at the caves as expressions of architecture in the landscape, with much history embedded within its walls. We are able to transcend these spaces and study them as if we were geologists, historians, geographers, scientists, artists, environmentalists and the list could go on, we then weave in an intricate connection through all these multi facets that the caves bring out – and only an architect can do that!

Storytelling is an art that Africans used as a critical way of passing on information, teaching, learning and keeping the historical records of who we were and are. It was sadly repressed by colonialism because reading and writing was considered to be superior to oral traditions.We tap back to this forgotten history and present our work in that way as a nostalgic reminder of where we came from, but it is also being used widely today in the world of technology where people spend less and less time reading and more time watching and listening.

We tap back to this forgotten history [storytelling] as a nostalgic reminder of where we came from, but it is also being used widely today in the world of technology where people spend less and less time reading and more time watching and listening.

"Memorials of Forgotten Words" by student Claire Koh, within the context of "Anthropocene Museum 5.0 Reinscribing New York City" held by Cave_bureau at Columbia GSAPP, 2022.

KOOZ We would like to end with a note on your involvement in pedagogy. What have you learned from the experience at Columbia GSAPP? Did the research on NYC’s indigenous caves expand your reading of the Anthropocene? How does pedagogy insert itself within the broader project of the Anthropocene Museum?

KKTeaching graduate students at Columbia University’s GSAPP was a privilege and honour. It was particularly rewarding to interact with the first cohort of students coming out of the COVID 19 pandemic lockdowns. We empathised with students knowing how difficult it was to study architecture during the lockdown. All the criticism levelled against “pandemic students” as being overly introvert, cautious and sometimes out of touch, we believe is more than compensated by how resilient they are, and in time we predict it will have a monumental impact on the profession as it relates to unpacking what we, as a species, experienced.

We found this evident in the provocative and beautiful work they produced, both questioning our own preconceptions about the syllabus itself, while building on the logics of where our cave surveying methodology could take them. In 2014 our cave manifesto spoke of a premonition that the human species will return to the cave, the pandemic signalled a gradual move in this direction as we were confined to our homes / caves, arguably brought about by a segment of human impacts on our biosphere.

In simple terms our syllabus set students the task to survey two caves in Manhattan Island, the first located in the heart of Central Park, Ramble Cave, shrouded in a dark anthropogenic history of crimes against and erased native American heritage, while the second, located at Inwood Hill Park to the north of Manhattan, equally impacted as desecrated native American burial grounds of the Lenape people. The sites opened broader geological readings of Manhattan Island’s bedrock, while reading the architecture of these caves through laser and basic photogrammetry scanning, and also engaging with Columbia’s Department of Historic Preservation to look at geological records of Manhattan’s stratum.

Students then begun thinking of ways to geologically read this anthropogenic evidence and impacts while imagining new ways to adopt architectural propositions of pushback, touching on subjects such the misogynistic topographies of Manhattan, dismantling of the national Museum of the American Indian, a more-than-human modular reading of the Ramble cave, among many other exciting projects that we showcase here.

We are in a time where looking back is very critical in informing the future. We cannot bury the past, nor can we ignore the future.

SM One of the greatest lessons that came out for me is that there is a large portion of history that is totally overlooked, and I think it is absolutely necessary that these stories are told. There needs to be an awareness at all times of a place’s being, and this “being” must stem from its past, its present and its future. We are in a time where looking back is very critical in informing the future. We cannot bury the past, nor can we ignore the future.

This was why the historical and geological research of the indigenous caves in New York was brought out in beautiful ways by all the students. Digging the past inspired the imagination of the students and informed the projects they presented. We emphasised that the Anthropocene should be at the back of their minds at all times as they thought of their proposed projects.

Pedagogy is vital as the next generation is inheriting both the previous generations' mistakes and advancements. They, therefore, need to come out from educational institutions fully armed and equipped with all that is necessary in order to tackle what lies ahead or before them.

"Who is a Museum?" by student Niriksha Shetty, within the context of "Anthropocene Museum 5.0 Reinscribing New York City" held by Cave_bureau at Columbia GSAPP, 2022.

Bio

Kabage Karanja is a UK qualified architect since 2011; He has worked at Symbion in Kenya, 3DReid Architects in Central London, Quay-2Cs Architects, in, Peckham,London, and Bohn & Viljoen Architects, in Dulwich, London. Kabage studied at Loughborough University, Brighton University, Westminster University, and Kingston University where he completed his architectural education, qualifying as an Architect under the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). He is also a member of the Architectural Association of Kenya. Kabage is a serial sketcher and story teller, driven to script and communicate cave thinking surrounding the built and natural environment.

Stella Mutegi is a Kenyan qualified architect since 2009; Stella has worked at Symbion Kenya, Dimensions Architects, and Interior Designers in Kenya. She studied at University of Newcastle in Australia where she completed her architectural education, before returning back home to Kenya. She is a member of the Architectural Association of Kenya. She heads the technical department at Cave.

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Published
01 Dec 2022
Reading time
24 minutes
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