Yasmeen Lari: Pakistan’s First Female Architect

Yusra Alvi
Yusra is an architect and design researcher. She earned her master’s in design research from the Bauhaus Foundation in Germany and is interested in charting the affinities between local events and the global forces that produce them. With a focus in spatial reorganisation and regeneration, she is an urban feminist who believes that social change can be propagated through designed spaces and structures. She is currently teaching future architects at COMSATS University, Lahore.
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

Pakistan’s first female architect is as determined as ever to continue improving the quality of life of her country’s most afflicted

“We have to be talking about dignity for women,” said Yasmeen Lari, internationally renowned as the first female architect of Pakistan. After graduating from Oxford School of Architecture in England in 1964, she embarked on a prolific career in Karachi by establishing her architecture firm, Lari Associates. During this time, her most influential works included a series of Brutalist homes, the Karachi Finance and Trade Center, and the Pakistan State Oil House; all of which showcased her design prowess. Decades later, in 2000, Lari retired from architectural practice and founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan. Between 2010 and 2014, she built over 36,000 houses for those affected by floods and earthquakes. “In most of the work that I have done, heritage and traditions have played a really important role,” she noted.

Lari spoke about her switch from ‘starchitecture’ to humanitarian work, and having to relearn a lot of things upon her return to Pakistan from England at the age of 23: “My whole life has been a journey of relearning things and being able to tackle various issues that I had not been confronted with before.”

Before her career transition, Lari had made a name for herself thanks to a number of prestigious state commissions throughout the 1980s, including the previously mentioned Karachi Finance and Trade Center, a large hotel development and a host of military barracks. Her designs, like that of the Taj Mahal Hotel, sometimes featured monumental volumes and were often cloaked with extravagant and polished elements, such as gilded surfaces. Some could argue the architecture reflected the architect, and even Lari herself noted the presence of an “architect’s ego”. Overtime, though, her approach began to shift, as did her focus, particularly after spending time with underprivileged communities during Karavan Karachi, a cultural festival that focuses on conservation, in 2001. “I learned to respect people,” she said.

In 2005, when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck Kashmir, Lari was inspired to use her role as an architect to help devise solutions. “Everybody in Pakistan wanted to go and do something, and I was one of them,” she said.

Lari was able to design and teach a method of construction utilising local materials, such as bamboo, lime and mud, to build better and safer homes for the victims of the natural disaster. She also encouraged the affected to work on a self-help basis rather than be dependent on relief funds.

Image courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

“I believe there are four things that are necessary: a safe room that would not be washed away during a flood, a toilet, clean drinking water and a chulah,” Lari said, referring to the low-cost smokeless stove that alleviates the challenges of poverty in rural Pakistan.

“If you can provide these four elements to each family, then you can tell them to be productive. If one does not even know whether tomorrow, they’ll still have a roof over their head, how can they do something productive? How could you expect them to work or be creative?”

In 2018, Lari was awarded the World Habitat Award for her design of the smokeless chulah. Women have largely been ignored in the field of architecture, both in terms of being acknowledged as designers, as well as design acknowledging their needs. Lari, in turn, focused her attention toward women, and used her position to connect to marginalised communities.

“Being female, I was able to enter people’s homes and talk to the women who were cooped up and had no way to mourn their losses,” she said, referring back to her work in aiding communities after the 2005 earthquake. “Every family had really suffered; women more so than others, as they were isolated from one another. We all know that there’s poverty and that people are living really hard lives, but unless you see [it] at close quarters, you don’t really understand the level of deprivation that exists.”

Lari’s chulah design drastically improved both women’s health and status in their communities. While traditionally, cooking is done on open-flame fires on the floor, causing respiratory issues and eye problems, Lari’s chulah consists of an enclosed stove on a raised podium, built and decorated by local women. Her design offered a cleaner, safer solution to meal preparation.

“The chulah gives you dignity,” she said. “[It] immediately improved the lives of these women who built the chulah because they sit on a platform which raises their status, while also helping them have clean food and reduced health issues.” She went on to speak about how women all carry the proverbial triple burden (a reference to Caroline Moser’s studies); and thus, we have to find convenient ways of working.

Image courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

“We have to find ways for women to be productive without really inconveniencing themselves or going against the grain of society,” Lari added.

Lari was awarded the Jane Drew Award in 2020 for raising the profile of women in architecture. The annual prize is presented by the Architects’ Journal and the Architectural Review as part of its W Awards series, or Women in Architecture Awards. Previous winners include Denise Scott Brown, Zaha Hadid and Elizabeth Diller. Over time, Lari said, she came to the conclusion that women have a different lens. “I do look at things with a different perspective. I consciously try to see that I work with women, or for women, or try to fulfill their needs somehow. If I were a man, would I have done the same? I’m not sure.”

Lari went on to express her surprise to receiving the Jane Drew Award as her work is not considered mainstream. She also critiqued other architectural award bodies for not acknowledging women’s contributions to the field of design and architecture. “There has been discrimination. Recognising women for what they’re worth is one way of saying: look, women have also contributed. They have also done work, which is of value,” she said.

Lari is very cognizant of her privilege, though, and recognises the benefits of her advantaged upbringing. “Everybody feels that I must have struggled so much to be able to do something, but I never believed that I had to struggle that much.

“I was privileged all my life and when you start at that level, reaching a little bit higher is not that difficult. But if you’re at rock bottom, then how do you get up to that height? That’s the problem; most women in our country do not get a chance. They do not have the background, the resources, nor the family support [needed to] get ahead. There are very few of us who have been able to do that. And having done that, to think that I struggled, it doesn’t make sense to me.”

She concluded, “All of us must know that we need to use this privileged background in a manner that can also help others. I think women have to support other women as much as possible. Only then will they have a chance to go forward.”

At the time of writing, Lari is in the United States recovering from COVID-19. She spoke briefly about the post-pandemic plans for the Heritage Foundation, and its mission to continue its efforts to improve the quality of life for many.

“The poor need as much design as the rich,” she said. “We have to understand that disparities are rising, but I think a lot of solutions can be realised with very little money. How do you alleviate the suffering of so many millions of people? What’s possible? With just a little bit of intervention, you can improve the quality of life. I think design has that power.”

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the third journal themed ‘Women’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.

Volume I, Journal III is available to read in digital format here.