The first female architect of Pakistan, Yasmeen Lari is a starchitect, turned humanitarian. She won the 2020 Jane Drew Prize for her work and commitment to design excellence, and for raising the profile of women in architecture.
“Earlier, we studied books that the British gave us. Now we have written some of our own books. We need to write a lot more of our own books because our interpretation will be different. We have a lot to do if we want our architecture to relate to our reality.”
A graduate of Oxford Brookes University School of Architecture, Lari opened her practice Lari Associates at the age of 23. Pioneer of the Brutalist architecture in the country, she worked with the richest of clients and worked on some of the most monumental buildings of the time, like the Finance and Trade Centre, Pakistan State Oil House, and ABN Amro Bank in Karachi. Besides being the president of the Institute of Architects in Pakistan, and the first chairperson of the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners, she was also elected to the Royal Institute of British Architects.
She designed the first public housing scheme of the country, the Anguri Bagh project, and self-financed the Lines Area Resettlement program, which rehoused 13,000 people in self-built homes without displacing them from where they lived and worked. Focussing on the issues of women, she designed open to sky terraces for the women who shifted here from their earlier flood-prone houses to give them outdoor space for their chickens and children.
In 1980, she co-founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan with her husband, for researching traditional construction techniques, historical restoration projects, and safeguarding cultural, and arts and crafts heritage of Pakistan. The Foundation also trains marginalized communities to make building components and products which they can later monetize, and help the communities to rise above poverty.
Though she formally retired in 2000, she has been an active partaker as a heritage conservationist and national adviser of UNESCO. As a UNESCO consultant, she worked on the project ‘Revitalization of Ancient Glazed Tiles in Sindh’ which helped in the completion of the 16thC Sultan Ibrahim tomb and imparted the ceramic making skills to poor communities, for income generation.
The 7.5 Richter scale earthquake of 2005, which killed 80000 people and left 400,000 displaced, veered her path to a disaster-resilient architecture. From designing monumental buildings that exuded pompousness from every sparkling surface, she went on to design mud, lime, and bamboo structures for the marginalized. She believes her post-retirement work to be an atonement for her egotistical journey of starchitecture till then. From never actually having worked with the communities, working with dispossessed communities and volunteers, allowed her to work with and for the people, especially the rural communities, giving her a glimpse into the side of Pakistan, that was ridden with poverty and inequality.
While the big shot international aid agencies were busy erecting costly prefab housing, Lari came up with low cost/zero carbon/zero waste shelters made from locally sourced materials like mud, lime, bamboo, and on-site debris. In the 2010 floods, she came up with water-proof bamboo structures resting on stilts, which provided refuge to people and goods even when the water rose to 7-8 feet. Till now, her team has set up forty thousand disaster-resilient structures, placing Pakistan among the top countries to provide zero-carbon shelters.
Her work provides the communities with a canvas where they can participate as equal partners, and make every structure unique using their innovations, and not give them a finite product. She believes in allowing people to take part in the construction process, giving them a sense of ownership and pride.
She is a pioneer of the philosophy of ‘Barefoot Social Architecture’ which believes in designing and training the locals to build low-cost, sustainable structures that can withstand the wreckages of floods and earthquakes that hit the country repeatedly. One of the most commendable designs of these Barefoot enterprises is that of the earthen, fuel-efficient chullah, which won the World Habitat award in 2018. These smokeless, earthen chullahs safeguard the health of women, and the raised-up platform of the stoves bestows a new sense of dignity in them. The Barefoot entrepreneurs are training other women to build the chullahs, making a chain of skilled artisans.
The Zero Carbon Cultural center near Makli, provides training to the nearby mendicant community in green-skills and crafts, helping them to earn livelihood in a dignified manner. The barefoot enterprises and products have helped the lowest sections of society to fulfill their unmet needs by raising them above the poverty line.
For her humanitarian works and her contribution to the field of architecture, she has been decorated with national awards of Sitara-i-Imtiaz and Hilal-i-Imtiaz and the coveted Fukuoka Prize for Asian Art and Culture from Japan. An architect, author, conservationist, historian, philanthropist, and an academician, she is aware of her privilege and is yet imbued with humility, kindness, and genuine generosity.