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Yasmeen Lari: "Even within poverty, you can become a millionaire"

At the UIA Congress 2023, Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari discusses the perils of charity, the potential in poverty, and why women need to be at the forefront.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Aug 01, 2023

For Pakistan's first female architect Yasmeen Lari, a thriving 36-year career in creating some of the most extravagant buildings serving the nation's elite concluded in a serendipitous arrival on the door of humility. When parts of northern Pakistan were hit by a massive 7.6 scale earthquake in 2005, it was only five years ago that Lari had formally retired and three years since she joined UNESCO as its national advisor on the World Heritage Lahore Fort. The calamity took the lives of over 80,000 people whereas as many as 40,000 were left with no roof over their heads. Lari came to the rescue of the earthquake victims by building houses using mud, lime, wood and stone basis her experience of working with the materials in some of her early projects. A collective endeavour, she taught indigenous building methods to the displaced and lessons on how to be resilient and self-reliant in the face of a crisis. And this was only the beginning of a path imprinted with barefoot marks that Lari painted with an impassioned pursuit of love and care.

Yasmeen Lari, 82, is a pioneer of humanitarian architecture in Pakistan<br>
 | Yasmeen Lari | Pakistan | STIRworld
Yasmeen Lari, 82, is a pioneer of humanitarian architecture in Pakistan Image: Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
Yasmeen Lari presenting at the UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 in Copenhagen Video: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

At the recently concluded UIA World Congress of Architects in Copenhagen, Lari spoke before an august gathering of architects and professionals from the building and construction industry about the need to put our attention towards the marginalised communities. Pakistan, the world’s fifth-most populous country, is inhabited by more than 200 million people out of which over 55 million live below the poverty line. As shared by Lari in her presentation, “It is not only the privileged who have a right to enjoy well-designed environments. The disadvantaged and those living on the margins need more, not less design.” Through participatory undertakings with her practices—Heritage Foundation of Pakistan and Barefoot Social Architecture—Lari is ceaselessly working on safeguarding the cultural heritage of Pakistan in addition to developing homegrown strategies to fulfil the unmet needs of the vast majority which has never been taken seriously. Post her keynote at the congress, STIR had a chance to speak to the Karachi-based architect where we discovered more about her journey and guiding philosophy.

  • Glimpse from a brick making workshop| Yasmeen Lari | Pakistan | STIRworld
    Glimpse from a brick making workshop Image: Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
  •  Women learning how to make a terracotta wash basin| Yasmeen Lari | Pakistan | STIRworld
    Women learning how to make a terracotta wash basin Image: Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
  •  A barefoot academy training| Yasmeen Lari | Pakistan | STIRworld
    A barefoot academy training Image: Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

With the 2023 congress' theme, Sustainable Futures: Leave No One Behind, STIR asked Lari what constitutes ‘all’ through the lens of her practice. “When we say ‘all’,” she said, “it means all the marginalised sections whether they are poor people, women, and vulnerable groups. Why should anybody be left behind? They all are entitled to a certain level of living. If we want to get to the Sustainable Development Goals, then all of them have to be brought up.” Lari, who is an advocate of the no-charity model shared that though charity is done in good faith, it robs the receiver of self-esteem and fosters dependency. The genesis of Barefoot Social Architecture (BASA) for her was rooted in the understanding of the ecological impact of architecture that she created for many years using environmentally aggressive materials such as cement and steel. Elaborating on this in her address, she observes, “For 36 years, barring a few projects, I treaded an egotistical journey. […] Buildings that I did in the 1980s, I wouldn’t do them today.” Recurring disasters in Pakistan brought her attention to the vast marginalised sections where, she adds, “various interactions with the poverty-stricken and vulnerable groups forced me to dispense my hugely inflated ego, obligating me to swallow the bitter pill of humility.”

With her work for the 2005 earthquake with Heritage Foundation of Pakistan—a not-for-profit organisation that she established in 1980 with her late husband and renowned author and historian, Suhail Zaheer Lari—the veteran architect developed agile techniques drawing from the pre-industrial vernacular heritage of the country. Following the four zeros—zero carbon, zero waste, zero donor, zero poverty—the 2023 winner of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal and 2020 Jane Drew Prize stepped up to heal a nation marred by widespread devastation. While building safe shelters for the displaced, she showed the value of co-creation in rendering hope, not just in the revival of lost homes but also in reinforcing people’s confidence in continuing to fight for their life. Later severe floods in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces in 2010, and recurring earthquakes in Balochistan province (2013) and Shangla (2015) brought her to build low-cost buildings using the vernacular bamboo framework and participatory processes. Barefoot Social Architecture (BASA), a women-led programme by her foundation, was realised in the need for justice for all. Its genesis, Lari relays in her presentation, was born from her feeling of empathy for those who walk barefoot, who went on to become her fellow travellers.

 Pakistan <em>chulah</em> (earthen stove) is a teaching model that Lari’s volunteer Champa Begum taught several rural women how to self-build| Yasmeen Lari | Pakistan | STIRworld
Pakistan chulah (earthen stove) is a teaching model that Lari’s volunteer Champa Begum taught several rural women how to self-build Image: Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
 Champa Begum at Granary Square, London, building Pakistan Chulah Stove during a Zero Carbon Structures' workshop organised by the British Council under Gender Grant 2021
 | Yasmeen Lari | Pakistan | STIRworld
Champa Begum at Granary Square, London, building Pakistan Chulah Stove during a Zero Carbon Structures' workshop organised by the British Council under Gender Grant 2021 Image: Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

"Barefoot is a common sight in our rural areas. It demonstrates the harshness of life but it has its benefits—you are able to tread softly on earth and grow up using the planet’s resources with care,” she observed. With BASA, Lari engages with impoverished communities in the Sindh province where she runs training programmes to teach villagers local building elements as well as the process of making everyday products that they can sell to sustain themselves. This way, she says, empowers the impoverished community and ignites their will to help themselves, which on the contrary charity doesn’t do, as it leads them to depend on others to change their circumstances. Speaking with STIR, Lari elaborates on the potential she sees in impoverishment by citing the example of the Pakistani earthen chulah (earthen stove) that one of her volunteers named Champa Begum furthered. Champa guided at least 50,000 women of different rural areas on how to self-build their own chulah. Hers is an inspiring journey that went from rags to riches in a few years. Together with her husband, she would travel to villages and charge 200 PKR for each of her workshops; their early monthly earning was about 4,000 PKR. Having embarked on the journey barefoot, her commutes slowly shifted to a bullock cart, to a motorbike, and eventually a car. The result, as Lari shares, fascinatingly made her a millionaire. While narrating the story of Champa to STIR, a beaming Lari shares a profound lesson that, “Even within poverty, you can become a millionaire.”

 Zero Carbon Cultural Centre in the UNESCO necropolis Makli in Sindh, Pakistan
 | Yasmeen Lari | Pakistan | STIRworld
Zero Carbon Cultural Centre in the UNESCO necropolis Makli in Sindh, Pakistan Image: Courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

Lari's transformative work for the beggar communities of UNESCO necropolis Makli in Sindh, Pakistan, is another example illustrating the potential of poverty. A site marked by a spiritual dimension, Makli is home to countless shrines and consequently, various soup kitchens that pull an army of beggars. Lari explains to STIR how this large population of beggars, totally unreliant on the urban areas and the elite class for their bread and butter, creates a barefoot ecosystem. With this ecosystem, she adds, comes the barefoot economy, barefoot markets, barefoot entrepreneurs, and barefoot products. The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan has a dedicated space in the region called the Zero Carbon Cultural Centre where through hands-on workshops locals are trained in how to make low-cost structures and everyday products. Created as a large bamboo pavilion, it is the largest bamboo architecture in Pakistan that was built in collaboration between Lari and Makli’s locals. 

Furthering architecture that creates social and ecological justice, and realising ownership, dignity and pride for the less privileged, Lari’s practice also puts a spotlight on the need of women in the forefront to address some of the most pressing issues of our time. A powerhouse herself, the Pakistani architect at the age of 82 is creating an impact that steers far ahead from the dominant narrative revolving around the architectural industry today. Her attempts, as per Lari, are an act of atoning for what she did in the 80s, having designed structures such as the Finance and Trade Centre (Karachi, 1989), and Pakistan State Oil House (Karachi, 1984) by using reflective glass, cement and steel. Perhaps if more architects could follow her lead, the world would be a different place to be.

The UIA World Congress 2023 programme featured talks, panel discussions and presentations by influential and innovative creative practices. STIR as an official Media Partner, brings you the highlights of the congress through a series of interviews, visits and conversations.

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