Dr. Yasmeen Lari

Dr. Yasmeen Lari – Architect, Architectural Historian, Heritage Conservationist and Philanthropist, is among the best known and the first woman architect of Pakistan. She graduated from Oxford School of Architecture (Oxford Brookes), and was elected to the Royal Institute of British Architects (1969). Since her retirement from architectural practice in 2000 she has engaged in heritage management and humanitarian architecture. She has been published among 60 women who have contributed the most towards UNESCO’s objectives. Her ‘Barefoot Social Architecture’ strategies have brought about social change among Pakistan’s marginalized sections. To mitigate GHG emissions and foster human well being, she promotes low cost, zero carbon and zero waste methodologies based on vernacular heritage and renewable materials, such as earth, lime and bamboo. In recognition of her services Dr. Lari has received national awards of Sitara-i-Imtiaz and Hilal-i-Imtiaz, and the coveted Fukuoka Prize for Asian Art and Culture from Japan. She became the second woman to be individually awarded the Royal Gold Medal in architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2023.

Taking time out of her busy schedule, Dr. Lari was kind enough to answer some of our questions about her vision and work practice.

You and your organization trained women to build their own eco-friendly stoves and contribute towards making their homes more safe and resilient. Did this impact the attitudes of their families towards them?

The Pakistani ‘chulah’ has turned out to be life transforming. I designed it to see that women would not have chest or eye diseases and in order to protect children from burning. There are lots of ills attached to what they call an ‘open flame’ brick stove, it requires fuel such as biomass, which needs to be collected and is very bad for the environment in every way. Using one also means a lot of hard work for women. The flow of air in the ‘chulah’ was designed by a German expert many years ago and a partner firm advising us felt that we could use that, but they were using burnt bricks. Since I don’t believe in using burnt bricks, we transferred everything into sun-dried bricks. That’s the reason women felt that they could make it, because it’s so easy and everything is available. As we were working in the flood area, I felt that everything should be raised, like in Mohenjo Daro (an ancient Indus Valley Civilization city that flourished between 2600 and 1900 BCE) where everything is on a platform, one way to save you from flooding.

When the pictures began to come in, I suddenly found that firstly the women were decorating the ‘chulahs’ – beautifully. It’s amazing how they were able to transform something so mundane as a simple, ordinary mud plaster surface into a thing of beauty. Secondly, because they were sitting on a platform, it seemed as if they were sitting on an earthen throne. As their backs became erect, their posture also changed and suddenly there was more confidence. The women found that they had dignity, as they were no longer crouching on the floor and I think that’s the most important element you can gift women with, a sense of dignity. At the stage they are in when they have nothing, and no privacy but also no dignity, which is the worst thing for any person.

I feel my job now, through architecture, is to create structures or possibilities where women feel they are empowered. It’s like giving agency to people who have no voice, because suddenly they feel, yes, they can show their skills and creativity.

Suddenly within their villages people began to respect them so much more and men were more respectful of them because suddenly they were sitting on this throne and able to dish out all the food to everybody who sat down around them, not on the floor but also in a dignified manner. The whole culture has changed because of this. It is a low cost solution, because our ‘barefoot entrepreneurs’ just go and train other women. As everything is locally sourced, they are taught how to do it and then they know how to do it and it works. We have calculated that there are now at least 200,000 of these chulahs that have been built. I am now working on doing the Zero Donor project, where we are not putting any money in it but just training everyone.

Could you tell how indigenous knowledge and practices inspired the design of your flood and earthquake resistant housing?

The only materials I use are earth and lime and bamboo. Now I am using prefabricated panels for the bamboo structures because that can be fabricated in controlled conditions. People that are trained now know how to make them. What I tried to do, what architects must do is see how they can integrate safety measures within the structures. Because it is an octagon, every panel has to be the right size, otherwise it won’t fit so automatically you are forced to make sure it is done correctly. Also, unless it is bolted properly, it won’t work, but once it is bolted put together and bolted properly, it is really strong as it is a structural panel. The roof is like an umbrella, so that it folds, so everything can be packed away and sent off anywhere, so that is the ease of construction and no water is being used. Bamboo is amazing that way, it uses no water, you do it all in a dry form. It can be erected by the household; the ‘barefoot entrepreneurs’ will go and show them how to assemble it properly, to put the roof on and how to bolt it.

Once you have a strong structure up you can put anything else around it, tarpaulin, matting, mud brick inside it, if you are up in the Northern areas you can put stone pieces in it. The actual panel is drawn from a technique called ‘Dhajji’ in Kashmir and the northern areas of Pakistan, where they use it as a cross-brace with wood. My innovation has been using bamboo, which has never been done before as I didn’t want to use wood. So that’s what I learnt, a normal roof actually here in Sindh is a thatched roof, like a ‘chauhra’ which is really cool. I feel I must use what I can find locally, but at the same time it must be climate resilient. There is a lot of tradition we need to see and seek inspiration from, learn from it and innovate. The design of the roofs is very flexible and modular and can also be adapted, for example to urban environments. If you develop the skills locally then you have no problem because then people themselves can keep innovating. You need one room that is safe for everybody, for one family. As I build with these low-impact materials, if something collapses (so far I haven’t heard of one of these structures collapsing), it won’t be life threatening. People are taught there must be a plinth and that it must be properly anchored.

What is your most important concern in your work today?

I would like to see how I can support young people in the profession who want to move into another direction, which is a big challenge. Unless the whole profession starts supporting divergent ways of working it won’t be that easy. The single most damaging factor is displacement. Every time a disaster happens, people have to leave, women and children especially are the worst sufferers. Anyone who hasn’t experienced displacement cannot understand the depth of anguish, pain and helplessness when you have to move from your own home to somewhere else. People have to leave for many months before they can restart living their lives, because if you are displaced you can’t live your life. My first effort is to see how I can avoid displacement for everybody, whether by flooding or as a result of earthquakes. We have different models for different situations, our earthquake model is tested on the ‘shaking table test’, because they are made out of earth and bamboo lattice. It was tested on movements of the Kobe earthquake 7.3 Richter scale. They tested first up to 275% and there was not even a crack, later going on to 670% when the walls buckled but no collapse occurred. In Sindh, the bamboo structures that survived were built in 2014 and were subjected to a few feet of water standing for 2 months but remained structurally sound.

My vision today is to deliver safe structures to anyone in my country at risk of displacement. A more recent issue, which has never happened before is that after flooding in some areas, the water just didn’t recede. You can’t invest in stilts or high plinths because they are very expensive and how will children use them? So in my mind, floating homes are the best because they will rise and subside according to the water level. They have been designed and hopefully will be in some places next year. Water disasters are the most common disasters in the world today, more than 50% of all disasters are water related, either floods, tsunamis, rising sea levels, rains themselves and also drought, as that means there is no water.

We know that we have to live with it, as far as climate change is concerned. How do we transfer skills to people so that they can fend for themselves in the future? So now I am focusing on incremental development; there should be at least one room for each family,I think that is a basic human right to have a shared toilet, potable water and a ‘chulah’ like mine which will give them clean food. We need more holistic models so that people can do it for themselves. The holistic model achieves rights-based development in  stage 1, in stage 2 they achieve food security while in stage 3 they begin to implement flood mitigation measures and stage 4 provides them with skills for barefoot livelihoods. In 6 months they start becoming self-sufficient.

All images and biography courtesy of ©Heritage Foundation of Pakistan