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Retrospective: Yasmeen Lari

Traditional skills and materials in Pakistan tread lightly on the planet while giving poor communities a sense of pride and self-sufficiency

Boasting a population of more than 200 million, Pakistan is the sixth most populated country of the world. With 55 million people living below the poverty line, it is not surprising that most live hand-to-mouth, are illiterate, and lack basic amenities of water, electricity and a proper roof over their heads. The disparity between the haves and have-nots is so immense that, while the majority are poor, and a large number unemployed, one per cent of the population live in palatial bungalows, own at least three cars, and have a posse of domestic help at their disposal.

The country has produced many highly talented architects who have created a number of award-winning buildings catering to this rich one per cent of the population. Yasmeen Lari – Pakistan’s first female architect – established her name by designing landmarks that still stand out for their architectural elegance. These include the Finance and Trade Centre in Karachi (1983-89), developed in consultation with the Canadian architect Eva Vecsei, and Pakistan State Oil House (1985-91), designed with sleek, reflective glass exemplifying a mighty Fortune 500 corporation.

‘40,000 zero-carbon shelters have been constructed. The result being that in the subsequent floods there was no loss of life, livestock or property in the areas in which Lari had worked’ 

However, in 2005, when an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale hit the Northern Areas of Pakistan killing 80,000 people and leaving 400,000 families displaced, Lari’s life and work changed forever. Having formally retired in 2000 and become UNESCO’s national adviser for World Heritage Lahore Fort in 2003, Lari used her experience of working with mud on some of her earliest projects – the barracks in Bahawalpur of the early ’80s, and a couple of schools built near Karachi – to rehabilitate the earthquake victims. Donor agencies offered help but, faced with this devastation, building traditions were eschewed in favour of prefab housing, concrete structures and galvanised iron sheets. Using mud, lime, stone and wood from the debris to make houses that were both cost-effective and eco-friendly, Lari worked with a large number of people who had lost everything. With a team of volunteers she taught people to use indigenous materials to build better and safer, encouraging the victims to work on a self-help basis rather than depending on government assistance.

Finance and trade centre karachi 1989

Finance and trade centre karachi 1989

Planned around a network of courtyards landscaped with fountains and vegetation, the Finance and Trade Centre used ancient methods of cooling spaces to minimise the use of air conditioning. Developed in consultation with the Canadian architect Eva Vecsei, open corridors link the blocks, channelling cool breezes deep into the building’s plan. Click here to downlod

Since this about-turn post-retirement, Lari’s work has had a significant impact on marginalised communities not only in Pakistan but also further afield. ‘At the time I enjoyed using expensive building materials such as large glass panels, polished granite and steel trusses’, Lari reflects, ‘and perhaps with my present work I am atoning for the damage I caused with my earlier projects’, although as she points out, even then she managed to build a few structures using sustainable materials.

Pakistan state oil house karachi yasmeen lari 1991

Pakistan state oil house karachi yasmeen lari 1991

PSO House is the headquarters of a state-owned multinational oil corporation, the largest in Pakistan. The building comprises 550,000 square feet of office space and rises 10 storeys, including an impressive five-storey entrance atrium and panoramic lifts. Click here to download

This shift in her work was not as out of the blue as it might first appear. In her initial years after graduating from Oxford Brookes School of Architecture, Lari returned to her home country with the deeply ingrained notion of pursuing architecture as a vocation rather than as a commercial enterprise. She settled in Karachi, trying to discover her roots. While exploring old towns, she wound up unlearning much of what she had learnt and relearning her country’s heritage. In 1973, Lari designed the Anguri Bagh housing project in Lahore, the first public housing scheme on a large scale in Pakistan and taken up by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. When the project was presented to the women in the area, their prime concern was what would happen to their chickens if they moved into public housing. Lari assured them that the open-to-sky terraces at each level would allow them to keep their chickens and grow vegetables, while the narrow pedestrian street would offer a safe playing area for their children.

Lari had been ‘deeply affected by the morphology and sustainable aspects of Pakistan’s ancient towns and vernacular heritage of rural earth buildings’ and, in 1980, she designed the Lines Area Resettlement, consisting of self-built, incremental housing for the residents of the largest informal settlement spread over more than 200 acres in the heart of Karachi. Using her land-sharing, self-financing concept, the project aimed to resettle 13,000 households. The urban design was once again based on Pakistan’s old towns, with narrow streets and semi-public squares. Importantly, it avoided displacement of the original residents whose places of work were in the vicinity.

Anguri bagh housing yasmeen lari

Anguri bagh housing yasmeen lari

In order to tempt locals from inadequate housing nearby, which was flooded with the yearly rains, Lari designed Anguri Bagh so that ‘children could play, household chores could be done and chickens could roam’. The project derives its name from the Mughal garden that once existed on the site, and the design of narrow streets and overhead walkways and courtyards was influenced by Pakistan’s medieval walled cities. These images from 1987 show how the project was appropriated by its inhabitants a decade following its completion. Click here to download

Over the years, Lari’s experience of working in mud, lime and bamboo in disaster areas has enabled her to hone her skills to an art form. ‘It is not as if these techniques didn’t already exist in our country, or that I have introduced something entirely new’, Lari admits. ‘It is just that they were not being used to their potential and interventions were needed to make traditional techniques safe.’ With the outbreak of conflict in Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2007, Lari started working in bamboo to provide facilities such as community kitchens in refugee camps. When in 2010 floods hit the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces, Lari diverted her attention to this area, using her knowledge of working with bamboo to make shelters with mud, lime and bamboo – all sustainable materials with a zero carbon footprint – and community centres on stilts, allowing the flood waters to flow through without any damage or harm to those sheltered within.

Womens centres sindh province 2011 15 yasmeen lari

Womens centres sindh province 2011 15 yasmeen lari

Constructed in various Sindh villages, larger community buildings scale up principles realised in smaller shelters. These women’s centres provide a space for women to socialise as well as places to share training in ‘barefoot’ enterprises. Built on bamboo stilts to protect from flooding, the undercroft can also be used as a classroom or store when not inundated with water, and a wide veranda offers shade from the sun. Click here to download

By 2014, 40,000 zero-carbon shelters had been constructed. The result was that, in the floods of 2012 and 2013, there was no loss of life, livestock or property in the areas in which she had worked. Similarly, when earthquakes hit Pakistan – in the Balochistan province in 2013 and then in Shangla in the north in 2015 – Lari designed earthquake-resistant shelters using earth, lime and bamboo, tested to resist movements many times greater than the Kobe earthquake, which measured 7.5 on the Richter scale.

Bamboo frame shelters sindh province 2010 11 yasmeen lari

Bamboo frame shelters sindh province 2010 11 yasmeen lari

Lari has designed various configurations of shelters for areas affected by earthquakes, floods and conflicts. Some, like this one, comprise a cross-braced bamboo frame, filled with mud and rendered with lime, and are both earthquake and flood resistant. Other types are constructed from unfired clay bricks, have traditional conical thatched roofs, or are built on bamboo stilts to rise above flood levels. The smaller shelters can be raised in two hours and the lime render completed in a couple of days. Click here to download

‘Barefoot social architecture’ is the philosophical basis of Lari’s work: architecture that treads lightly on the planet. One example of a ‘barefoot enterprise’ is Lari’s design for an earthen, fuel-efficient chulah (stove) – winning a World Habitat award in 2018 – which safeguards women’s dignity, health and income. Already close to 50,000 chulhas – costing only Rs1,000 or £6 per unit, and no cost to the donor except the expenses incurred in the training of ‘barefoot entrepreneurs’ – have been built in Sindh and more are being made daily. Lari has also designed disaster-resistant platforms for water pumps as well as eco-toilets with earth walls and types of mud and bamboo fire-, earthquake- and flood-resistant shelters – all to be self-built by the communities themselves.

Chulah stove project sindh province 2018 yasmeen lari

Chulah stove project sindh province 2018 yasmeen lari

For years, women in mendicant villages have used floor-mounted stoves which emit toxic smoke causing eye and respiratory diseases, and are easily washed away in floods. Dust, smoke and bacteria contaminate food on floor-mounted stoves, a key cause of diarrhoea, particularly among infants and children. Today, nearly 50,000 chulah stoves have been constructed by villagers in Sindh province to replace them. Trained ‘barefoot entrepreneurs’ charge a nominal amount to teach the inhabitants to build the stoves, while providing a hygienic area for food preparation fuelled by agricultural waste such as twigs and sawdust. Click here to download

Lari explains that her job is to ‘create a canvas on which communities can participate as equal partners, making every structure unique using their own innovations, and not to give them a finite product’. Believing in ‘low cost’ or ‘no cost’ alternative architecture, the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, co-founded and spearheaded by Lari, provides the infrastructure of basic materials, knowhow and guidance through largely non-literate, trained ‘barefoot entrepreneurs’, while the finishing work is undertaken by the community. ‘There is a participatory approach in this work unlike other architectural works’, Lari insists. Marginalised communities are taught how to take charge of their lives and make low-cost, quality products for themselves and others. Awards and prizes along with grants and donations collected by friends fund the operations. It helps that Heritage Foundation board members and Lari herself provide services pro bono.

Earlier this year Lari organised eight mendicant villages near Makli into what she calls a barefoot ecosystem. With the help of British Council funding they have been trained as specialists in different kinds of barefoot products for the marginalised sections, so regenerating the local economy. While one village is dealing in prefab bamboo structures, one is concentrating on roof thatching, one on lime and mud bricks, and one on terracotta and tile work. People are also taught to make hygiene products such as cheap, natural soaps and shampoos to make them self-sufficient. A rights-based, holistic model, with the poor helping other poor, the work aims to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal number one: No Poverty.

Zero carbon cultural centre makli 2015 19 yasmeen lari

Zero carbon cultural centre makli 2015 19 yasmeen lari

Click here to download

The participative approach of barefoot social architecture contrasts with Western charity models which, in spite of good intentions, fail to provide succour to target populations, due to their unsustainable siloed approach that treats people as helpless victims who should be happy with handouts. While governments and aid agencies struggle with the scale of the task at hand, rights-based shelter programmes, such as the transformation of beggar communities near Makli, teach people to construct their own structures, costing only Rs30,000 (under £200), to provide prefab bamboo shelters and eco-toilets, water hand-pumps on raised earthen platforms, along with finishing and environmental improvement by the villagers themselves.

Zero carbon cultural centre makli 2015 19 yasmeen lari section and plan

Zero carbon cultural centre makli 2015 19 yasmeen lari section and plan

The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, spearheaded by Lari, is helping to conserve Makli, a necropolis of breathtaking funerary monuments in Sindh province. Located nearby, this zerocarbon campus showcases a selection of Lari’s designs for the poorest in society, including chulahs, bamboo shelters and water pumps. This is part of Lari’s vision for the sustainable conservation of Pakistan’s heritage sites, ensuring that local people are better equipped to protect and care for their local historic monuments. Click here to download

So successful are these prefab bamboo panel models that they are being sent out to other parts of Sindh, where villagers have heard about them. Malawi, too, has ordered some of the prototype shelters to be shipped to them for local assembly. Plans are afoot to establish a workshop in Malawi to train local personnel to reduce embodied energy.

Once a starchitect catering mostly to the elite of the country, and now only working with the poorest, Lari wonders whether her current work can qualify as architecture at all, or if a better term is ‘non-architecture’, maintaining that she cannot claim that these self-built structures are ‘my architecture’. Following the dictum ‘low cost, zero carbon, zero waste’, Lari hopes to reach the ultimate objective of ‘no cost’ through barefoot micro-enterprises and products for povertystricken people – a model that can be replicated worldwide. ‘I believe that giving up a life dictated by the whims of the one per cent of our population has opened up exciting opportunities for me’, Lari reflects. ‘Providing dignity to the marginalised and preventing damage to the planet.’

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today