by Dilpreet BhullarFeb 16, 2021
When I first interviewed Yasmeen Lari in 2014 (Elle Decor, October-November, 2014), I had written that hers was a voice we must heed, and heed well. Today, six years later, talking to her during the lockdown after she received the Jane Drew Prize 2020, I cannot emphasise this statement enough. As we stare at the possibility of a changed world in the aftermath of the viral onslaught, it is evident that climate change is upon us, and restructuring of dense habitats and different ways of living will be inevitable. In this scenario, Yasmeen's pathbreaking work on zero carbon, eco-friendly and sustainable shelters may just show the way forward.
The first woman architect from Pakistan, Yasmeen Lari graduated from the Oxford School of Architecture in England, and set up her own practice in Karachi in 1964. She is responsible for designing several iconic structures including the General and Naval Combatant Headquarters, Finance and Trade Centre, Taj Mahal Hotel and Pakistan State Oil House. But she gave up commercial practice in 2000 to pursue heritage conservation and protect some of the country's historic treasures. In 2005 her path veered once more. After a massive earthquake in northern Pakistan, she got wholly involved in post-disaster development. Since then, Yasmeen has been at the forefront of "barefoot social architecture", designing and training locals to build low-cost, eco-friendly homes and community centres that can withstand the ravages of floods and earthquakes that hit Pakistan repeatedly.
Here are excerpts from an in-depth conversation with the architect who turns 80 on June 28, 2020...
Sonal Shah (SS): What does the Jane Drew Prize mean to you and to the women architects in Pakistan?
Yasmeen Lari (YL): I was touched and humbled as it was entirely unexpected. The work I do today as part of my 'barefoot social architecture' stratagem, appears to many as 'non-architecture'. So, I am very grateful to the judges for bringing it to the stature of 'starchitecture'. This will give more credibility to my current work, which is entirely zero carbon and seeks to use design for social and eco justice for marginalised sections. It will also bring professional women's voices to the table, which were earlier relegated to the sidelines.
SS: It is time for us to rethink architecture for the future…how should we approach building and city-living now?
YL: The post-COVID-19 world will require us to have an entirely disparate mindset towards architecture and urban design. Since the virus does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, I hope it will result in a more egalitarian society. I also hope that more architects will explore my 'barefoot social architecture' model, which follows the dictum 'low cost/zero carbon/zero waste'.
While achieving zero carbon status might be difficult for all buildings, it would help if we could begin lowering the carbon footprint by designing hybrid buildings – a combination of high-carbon and low-carbon materials.
COVID-19 has also effectively demonstrated to the Third World that in order to assure safety for all, the poorest of the poor must be provided a minimum standard of living. We will now need to focus on the provision of rights-based development consisting at least safe shelter, clean water supply, sanitation, and clean stoves such as award-winning Pakistan Chulah along with higher literacy and better healthcare. By establishing Barefoot Incubator for Social Good and Environmental Sustainability, my Heritage Foundation has trained a large number of the poor. In 2019, with assistance from the British Council DICE programme and Glasgow University, we were able to provide training in green skills and crafts to 230 women, men and differently-abled persons belonging to beggar communities living in the shadow of Makli World Heritage. The creation of micro or barefoot enterprises was designed to fulfill the unmet needs of the lowest sections. Through this 70 per cent have been able to rise above the poverty line within 14 months by marketing their products in their vicinity alone.
As you know, I use earth and bamboo in my zero carbon structures. These materials have been widely used by the poor in our rural areas but they were not familiar with the advantages of lime, which I have been able to popularise for earth stabilisation. Since lime provides strength and water resistance, its use has taken away the stigma of disintegration in earth structures during rains or floods. The households are able to complete and finish the bare skeleton of bamboo prefab panels that we provide, with their own effort.
SS: How do you view commercial designs and iconic buildings from your early career?
YL: I have to say that I very much enjoyed the design opportunities that presented themselves when I was practising, as I took each one as an opportunity to explore different concepts. It is also true that I would not design in the same way as I did in the 1980s and 1990s, because the reality of climate change and global warming has become dominant in our lives. Also, we know that unless as architects we help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in conventional concrete and steel construction, which consumes between 40-50 per cent of energy worldwide, we would continue to inflict untold damage to the planet.
SS: What were the triggers that led to some of your most successful creations - for instance the round bamboo flood shelter?
YL: The two-storey round bamboo Women's Centre was a response to a challenge thrown at me. When meeting the head of the National Disaster Management Agency, I showed him pictures of bamboo structures we had built in Swat in response to 2010 floods. He disdainfully looked at single-storey designs and said, "But surely you could not build a double-storey structure in bamboo for flood areas". Soon after, while providing assistance to flood affectees in Sindh in 2011, I worked on a design for community centre with more than one floor, and the Women's Centre was the first double-storey structure that we built. This design has been replicated in several other flood areas. These structures, being on stilts, provide an elevated meeting place for women and a shaded area below for children's activities. Even when flood waters rise up to seven to eight feet, these provide refuge for people and household goods.
SS: With a career spanning several decades, you have witnessed many changes. What is your advice to the new generation of architects?
YL: The world has changed entirely from the time that I was practicing, especially the extremely extravagant decades since the 1980s. As architects we are always visualising creating monuments and important edifices… it is almost always about creating something for the one per cent. But now this thinking must change. Climate change, stark income disparities and environment damaging practices stare at us from the world over. With the current pandemic, architects will need to work even harder to provide leadership to the world to create democratic design adopting degrowth and transition design movements that are becoming popular in the West as well as barefoot social architecture that leads to self-reliance of BOP in LDCs (Less Developed Countries). We need to focus on good design for the 99 per cent.
But always, as professionals, you must live with integrity and never lose sight of your dreams.
Yasmeen concludes with a hope that in the near future there will be a growing community of people who are conscious of the destruction to our planet and there will be a greater effort to address the issues of climate change and GHG emissions, along with fulfilling basic needs of those who are living at the margins. Getting the prestigious Jane Drew Prize is also testimony to that. "Technology is transforming all that we do and connecting us in real time." She ends with a plea - "Let us work together for a better tomorrow also for the other 99 per cent."
Did you know? Yasmeen Lari…
- is not only the first woman architect from Pakistan, but perhaps of the subcontinent.
- has been greatly influenced by architects Le Corbusier and Hasan Fathy.
- through her Heritage Foundation managed to have a law passed in 1994 in Sindh province to protect urban historic sites from demolition.
- has written and co-authored several books on the historic architectural diversity of Pakistan.
- was awarded the Fukuoka Prize for Asian Art and Culture in 2016.
- has received national awards of Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence) in 2006 and Hilal-i-Imtiaz (Crescent of Excellence) in 2014 from the Government of Pakistan.
Click here to read more articles in the series 'Luminaries of Our Times'.