Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

‘In architectural practice you are so isolated from the reality of the country': Yasmeen Lari and self-sustaining architecture

Winner of the Jane Drew Prize 2020, Pakistan’s first female architect builds what she describes as ‘barefoot architecture’, treading lightly on the planet

In November last year, artisans from nearby mendicant villages and local students gathered beneath a vast bamboo shelter with representatives from the V&A, the World Monuments Fund, and others from around the world. The occasion was a conference on Green Sustainable Architecture taking place near the ancient Pakistani city of Makli at the ZC3 campus. Designed by Yasmeen Lari as a site for the teaching and dissemination of her radically sustainable architecture, the campus is an assembly of buildings constructed using bamboo and mud and producing zero carbon. Both the conversations happening at these conferences and the buildings in which they were housed have a role to play in changing mindsets, habits and policies. 

‘Lari began to define the nature of Pakistan’s architectural history within the complex cultural identity that this relatively new country, always in flux, was constructing for itself’

Intensely aware of the different realities of the wealthy political classes, to which she belongs by birth, the trajectory of her more than 50-year career moves ever deeper into the lives of the vast majority of Pakistan’s inhabitants who, as she describes it, experience unimaginable deprivation. Engaging with very local situations in rural Pakistan caused, for example, by flooding, earthquake and water shortages in addition to extreme poverty, she proposes a responsive vernacular that is both material and instrumental. On a larger scale, the technologies and processes for production she works with become ever more relevant in the global context of climate crisis and growing inequalities. 

Trained as an architect in Britain, graduating from Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University School of Architecture) in 1964, Lari worked in Britain and Germany before returning to Karachi as the chief architect of MacDonald, Layton & Costain, a British construction company. Here, she was in charge of major industrial projects for the relatively new Republic of Pakistan, which was then just 17 years old. As the country’s first female architect, she set up her own practice, Lari Associates, and her initial commissions were examples of the diasporic interpretation of Brutalism that spread across Latin America, South Central Asia and other parts of the world.

Her early houses, for Commodore Haz (1967) and Naser ud-deen Khan (1969), for example, combined the simplicity of vernacular dry-climate houses with a sophisticated interpretation of European Modernism. Lari’s thriving architectural practice served the corporate and state sectors, and her most well-known buildings of this period are the Taj Mahal Hotel (1981), the Finance and Trade Centre (1989), and the headquarters of the Pakistan State Oil Company (1991). 

inspecting bamboo yasmeen lari architectural review

inspecting bamboo yasmeen lari architectural review

Source: Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

In a country which currently ranks as the second lowest in the world for gender equality, her work in Pakistan is no mean feat. Lari is often the only woman working in a project team

In 2000, Lari retired from architectural practice, initially to focus on writing books about Pakistan’s architectural heritage, including some illustrated guides on Lahore and Karachi. This quiet life was to change radically in 2005, when earthquakes in northern Pakistan drew her to the remote Siran Valley, where, swapping concrete for mud, she began her current engagement – her vocation in many ways – with Pakistan’s impoverished rural communities. 

This move was not as sudden as first appears but was motivated by concerns with deep roots and an independent, fighting spirit focused like a spotlight on issues of inequality and improvement throughout her working life. In 1969 she researched and wrote a government report on housing for industrial workers and proposed that slum dwellers should be settled where they had squatted, close to their place of work in established communities rather than in remote suburbs. This led to Anguri Bagh Housing, Lahore (1973), the design of which revealed the need for space to keep animals and grow food. Her physical presence on the world stage followed soon after, when she represented Pakistan at the Habitat Forum in Vancouver (1976), and the project was shown at the second Venice Architecture Biennale on the Architecture of Islamic Countries (1982).

‘Lari is currently reclaiming the streets with a zero carbon heritage trail that uses products made in the rural women’s centres she has set up’

In 1978, Lari became President of the Institute of Architects of Pakistan. She also helped found the Pakistan Council for Architects and Town Planners, acting as its inaugural chairperson between 1983 and 1986. During this period, she organised the first Conference of Architects and Town Planners of Islamic Countries in Karachi (where only 26 out of 350 of the delegates were women). A desire to protect the ancient and historic buildings of Pakistan’s cities from the ravages of commercial development led Lari to set up the Heritage Foundation with her husband Suhail Zaheer Lari in 1980. As Lari herself puts it, this was part of her personal and  professional development: ‘Having been trained as an architect in the West, for me there was a period of unlearning as I tried to relate to the reality of the country, and roamed our amazing historic towns for inspiration’. Through the work of the Heritage Foundation and her associated research and writing, Lari began to define the nature of Pakistan’s architectural history within the complex cultural identity that this relatively new country, always in flux, was constructing for itself. 

Lari’s immersion in the everyday reality of Pakistan’s rural poor that began in 2005 – building emergency shelters for earthquake victims in Hazara and Kashmir – is a constantly evolving process. From its beginnings relying on funding from industry and aid sources, problematic because when the funding ends the project ends, her strategies have moved towards developing self-sustaining systems. Lari’s ‘barefoot social architecture’ is based on and encourages rural Pakistan’s pre-existing ‘barefoot economy’, which meets the needs of those who have nothing, making them self-sufficient. A small amount of training and investment creates community-based entrepreneurship that enables any surplus to be reinvested locally, instead of filling the pockets of remote investors. Training programmes send students across the country to teach construction techniques to local communities, based on zero carbon materials such as bamboo, mud and lime plaster. From this technical and material research, grass-roots enterprises develop, such as the Green Shelters programme at Makli, the raised fireplace (or chulah), a current project developing eco toilets, and craft products using bamboo, ceramics and briquettes of sawdust and cow dung. ‘There’s a huge market’, she says, ‘we are making tomorrow’s millionaires.’

smokeless stove yasmeen lari architectural review

smokeless stove yasmeen lari architectural review

Source: Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

Women using chulah stoves in Sindh province

The role of women is particularly important in Lari’s work, both as inspiration and in a participatory, communicative capacity. She points out how poorly women are treated in rural society and describes her concern for dignity as an essential starting point. The chulah, an open-air fireplace, is ‘like a throne’, explains Lari. ‘The woman is upright rather than squatting’, and with this transformation in posture, men’s attitudes towards women also change.  

In her hometown of Karachi, she is currently reclaiming the streets with a zero carbon heritage trail that uses products made in the rural women’s centres she has set up, reflecting her important role in preserving Pakistan’s heritage, for which she won the prestigious Fukuoka Prize in 2016. ‘The problem with architectural practice is that you are so isolated from the reality of the country. You are busy doing work for the corporate sector or for others, and you never get the chance to really work with people’, Lari observes. 

In 2001, Lari’s physical engagement with people on the street began when she organised Karavan Karachi, a heritage festival with a difference. Its theatricality played out on the city’s streets to generate public awareness and support for heritage structures, proving that heritage belongs to the present and future, as well as the past. This involved the celebration of specific buildings in ceremonies accompanied by bands, speeches, plays and comedy shows, and then later by a programme of cleaning and mural painting by students and schoolchildren. ‘I had never sat on the street before in my life, and then my work with Karavan taught me that I could be with and come close to people’, Lari remembers. ‘I managed to lose my ego at that time, which was very good.’ 

The Jane Drew Prize

A spirited advocate for women in a male-dominated profession, Jane Drew graduated from the Architectural Association in 1929 into a profession that was unwelcoming to women at best. She started her own practice after the Second World War, and her work played a substantial role in introducing the Modern Movement into the UK.

Last year, the prize was given to Elizabeth Diller. Previous winners include Amanda Levete, Odile Decq, Grafton Architects’ founders Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, Zaha Hadid, Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay and Eva Jiřičná.

The Ada Louise Huxtable Prize

Ada Louise Huxtable made history by being the first full-time architecture critic at a US newspaper when she joined the New York Times, and was later awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1970. Swiss-French artist and architectural photographer Hélène Binet won in 2019. Dutch artist Madelon Vriesendorp won in 2018. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread, former Serpentine Galleries director Julia Peyton-Jones and client and architectural patron Jane Priestman are the previous recipients of the accolade.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2020 issue on Masculinities + W Awards – click here to buy your copy today