Rebel Architecture

Yasmeen Lari: ‘On the road to self-reliance’

Pakistan’s first female architect is one of the most successful providers of disaster relief shelters in the world.

Yasmeen Lari is Pakistan’s first female architect. She has built her wide and stellar career in Pakistan, “an industrially less-developed country, [with] high levels of illiteracy and poverty, booming urban centers, and, more recently, multiple major natural disasters,” creating architectural solutions to its challenges.

Earlier we studied books that the British gave us. Now we've written some of our own books. We need to write a lot more of our own books. Because our interpretation will be different. We've a lot to do, if we want our architecture to relate to our reality.

by Yasmeen Lari

Natural disasters have provided the backdrop to much of her later work.

In areas affected by the 2005 earthquake, Lari came up with a bamboo shelter system which is cheap to build, and has a low-carbon footprint. Built with adobe-and mud walls and strong bamboo cross-bracing, all materials are available locally.

Working with Architecture for Humanity, Nokia and the Swiss Pakistan Society, she has built nearly 2,000 sustainable shelter units, which she hopes will help promote and propagate green design in Pakistan.

The 2010 floods, which affected 20 million people in Pakistan, inspired her to build new, safe waterproof homes – to date, she has built 36,000.

In other community work, Lari introduced low-rise buildings, which incorporated courtyards and terraces where women could carry out household chores, grow vegetables, keep chickens, and she created designs that enabled women to watch children playing.

“I often tell my colleagues, ‘let us not treat disaster-affected households as destitute, needing handouts. Rather let us give them due respect and treat them as we would a corporate-sector client.”

She should know – she has also worked with several corporate-sector clients. After setting up her practice in 1964 she designed some of Karachi’s biggest buildings for clients like the Pakistani State Oil company.

“The work I am involved in now is very different,” says Lari, who founded the non-profit, humanitarian Heritage Foundation with her husband in 1980.

“When we train as architects, we’re taught that architecture is like God because you create things. As a result, your ego is inflated. You think no one else can do what you’re doing. Now my work is something else. It’s another world I am working in.”

During her childhood spent in and around Lahore Lari’s father worked on development projects. Part of the problem, as he saw it, were the lack of qualified architects. So he encouraged his daughter to become an architect. So she learnt to draw at art school, and then got her architectural degree from Oxford Brookes University.

She has been publicly recognised for her work, including in 2002, getting the UN Recognition Award for the promotion of culture and peace. In 2006, she was awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, one of the highest civil awards, by the Pakistani government.

But she is really interested in helping Pakistani families: “If we can encourage that elusive element of pride among traumatised families half the battle would be won, for they would soon be on the road to self-reliance …. A lot of funding poured into Pakistan. Ever since, people have expected someone to come and give them everything. But I feel now donor-fatigue has set in. And it’s a very good thing.”

For more on Yasmeen Lari and her work:

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