RIBA and Google Arts & Culture collaborate to create a digital architectural showcase
by Jerry ElengicalMay 26, 2021
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Almas SadiquePublished on : Apr 28, 2023
What is a country’s history, if bereft of dignity? What are its lanes, parks, squares and buildings, when stripped off of their regional originality, only to be replaced by edifices that clamour for a spot nearest to the sky, all in an attempt to replicate—albeit poorly and incongruously—the icons of the Occidental empires?
It is perhaps the exploration of these questions and the corresponding reflections that led Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect, to deviate from a path flanked by iconoclastic structures, and onto a realm that not only strayed away from the commercial practice of architecture but also focused on protecting and preserving heritage structures and vernacular practices and centring on the need for developing low-cost, low-impact, post-disaster structures in the country.
Incongruent from the paths typically trailed by architects—of striving to develop styles and icons that can trademark their work—Lari’s off-road trajectory, although befuddling for many in the beginning, has found popular acknowledgement and appreciation from professionals of all quarters. In most recent news, Lari has been announced as the recipient of the Royal Gold Medal 2023, by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Regarded as one of the highest honours in the field of architecture, the Royal Gold Medal, first awarded in 1848, is personally approved by the Monarch of United Kingdom. The 2023 accolade has, hence, been finalised by Charles III for the first time. The RIBA Gold Medal will officially be awarded in June 2023.
This announcement for Lari follows Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi in 2022 and British-Ghanian architect Sir David Adjaye OBE in 2021. Perhaps a result of tokenistic vindication by Britain, or an attempt at deviating from the popular method of platforming and awarding famed works over humanitarian contributions. There is an inclination towards finally acknowledging changemakers from third-world countries. For young individuals scrutinising the architectural ecosystem for examples and inspiration, work that integrates vernacular practices, remains grounded in ethics, and yearns to engage both architects and non-architects equitably, is the way forward towards a more egalitarian society.
Upon hearing the announcement, Yasmeen Lari shares, “I was so surprised to hear this news and of course totally delighted! I never imagined that as I focus on my country's most marginalised people — venturing down uncharted vagabond pathways - I could still be considered for the highest of honours in the architectural profession.” The award is a celebration of Lari’s consistent efforts towards designing and building low-carbon, low-cost structures for displaced populations. Acknowledging RIBA’s evolved mantra, Lari adds, “RIBA has heralded a new direction for the profession, encouraging all architects to focus not only on the privileged but also humanity at large that suffers from disparities, conflicts and climate change. There are innumerable opportunities to implement principles of circular economy, de-growth, transition design, eco-urbanism, and what we call Barefoot Social Architecture (BASA) to achieve climate resilience, sustainability and eco-justice in the world.”
Yasmeen Lari studied architecture at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes) in the United Kingdom. Upon returning to Pakistan, she practised the profession and went on to establish her own architectural firm, Lari Associates, in 1964. Initially operating as what she refers to as a “starchitect”, Lari built landmark structures such as the Finance and Trade Centre in Karachi, the Taj Mahal Hotel, and Pakistan State Oil House. It was only in the year 2000 that Lari decided to give up her commercial practice in favour of a path fringed with mindful consideration and conservation of the country’s heritage. In this arena, she also founded The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, in 1980, with her husband Suhail Zaheer Lari, who was a historian and author.
Further, in 2005, after a massive earthquake of 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale, Lari veered again. The earthquake, which had resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of families, impacted Lari’s life and work. Using her experience in utilising vernacular materials, she began to scope out regions in the country that required rehabilitation. She salvaged materials such as mud, wood, lime and stone, from the debris, and constructed low-cost and eco-friendly homes. During this time, she also encouraged and taught those affected by the earthquake to build structures out of indigenous materials, and hence, develop a self-help ecosystem, rather than relying on external help and assistance to build and rebuild their abodes and shelters. In awarding Lari, RIBA celebrates Lari’s role as an architect and a humanitarian in times of crisis, in the country.
The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, has, in the past 43 years, pioneered the design of self-sustainable housing units and shelters. They have built more than 50,000 dwellings and prototyped the Chulah Cookstove—the ecological alternative to traditional stoves that reduce emissions and tackle unfavourable health issues associated with open fire stoves—of which 80,000 units have now been built. The organisation not only tends to the infrastructural needs of the displaced populace, but also creatively acknowledges and tends to the physical and psychological damage writ by disasters such as earthquakes, floods and other conflicts.
“Lari’s design for 60,000 Chulah Cookstoves structures are a self-build version of the traditional Pakistani stove that enhances food preparation, hygiene and quality while creating a place for the community. Always working to empower the most challenged communities at the most difficult times, Lari has most recently developed designs for a system that allows the construction of 100 emergency shelters in four days,” mentions a blurb from the official release.
Lari’s work stands out for its attention towards instilling self-sustainable architectural systems that are also simple and inclusive of those whose needs are being tended to. A description of her work in the official release reads, “Her work is distinguished by the fact that it has focused on developing robust, intelligent yet simple, architectural designs that allow those who are in distress to build for their own needs using the available debris of disaster. This is a very different, but also very relevant, model of re-use and reinvention that engages and empowers.”
Lari has also alternatively developed the prototype for another self-build shelter, that utilises bamboo as the primary material. The usage of bamboo additionally renders habitations with a beautiful braced frame. “There is an inherent generosity in Lari’s architectural activity that responds to need, helps communities develop artisanal skills and always utilises available resources,” reads an excerpt from the press release.
RIBA President Simon Allford, on this event, shares, “It was an honour to chair the committee that selected Yasmeen Lari. An inspirational figure, she moved from a large practice centred on the needs of international clients to focusing solely on humanitarian causes. Lari’s mission during her ‘second’ career has empowered the people of Pakistan through architecture, engaging users in design and production. She has shown us how architecture changes lives for the better.” The 2023 Royal Gold Medal selection committee was chaired by architect and RIBA President Simon Allford. It also comprised Ivan Harbour, architect and senior partner at RSHP; Cornelia Parker CBE RA; Neal Shasore, Chief Executive and Head of School at the London School of Architecture, and Cindy Walters, architect and partner at Walters & Cohen.
Pondering further on Lari’s versatile and inclusive initiatives, Allford asserts, “Lari’s work in championing zero carbon and zero waste construction is exemplary. She has reacted imaginatively and creatively making affordable projects that address the real and often urgent need for accommodation, and basic services, but with generosity and an eye for the potential of everyday materials and crafts to make architecture at all scales. Her way of working also sets out to address the physical and psychological damage caused by major natural disasters – disasters that sadly inevitably will be ever more prevalent in our densely populated and climate-challenged planet.”
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