Pakistan’s “first woman architect,” Yasmeen Lari founded her Karachi-based firm Lari Associates in 1964. Since closing the practice in 2000, she has focused on heritage preservation work with UNESCO and disaster relief projects with the Pakistan Heritage Foundation, a family trust that she co-founded with her husband in 1980. Over the years, they have helped build over 40,000 earthquake and flood resistant houses, 30,000 smokeless stoves and hundreds of latrines in rural Pakistan. Lori's work is committed to low cost, zero carbon and zero waste methodologies based on vernacular traditions and aimed at sustainability. She has been widely recognized for her contribution to the field of architecture. She is the recipient of the 2020 Jane Drew Award, the 2018 World Habitat Award, the 2017 Curry Stone Design Prize, and the 2016 Fukuoka Prize.
MF: Good morning. My name is Mahnaz Fancy, the Communications and External Relations Manager at Sharjah Architecture Triennial. As part of the first series of SAT talks, Architecture+ Community, I’m pleased to welcome today's guest Yasmeen Lari who joins us from Karachi.
After retiring from the firm that she started in 1964 in Karachi. Yasmeen Lari has focused on her work with the Pakistan Heritage Foundation, a family trust started with her husband in 1980 and focused her practice on heritage preservation and disaster relief projects.
I'm happy to welcome Yasmeen Lari, who offers important insight into an architectural practice that places environmental, social, and gender issues at the core of its mission.
Good morning, Mrs Lari.
Over the course of today's conversation, we hope to learn more about your practice, the context within which you work, the challenges it presents, and your approach towards the built environment.
So, to start, I want to begin with a question about context: as a Pakistani architect who has primarily practiced in her country, what role does social responsibility play in the evolution of your career?
YL: Thank you, Mahnaz, for having me with you today. I really feel that countries like Pakistan give architects enormous opportunities to work at many different levels. So, as you have pointed out, I've been very lucky to have been able to handle many diverse kinds of architectural performances, if you like.
Starting off with , of course, as every architect does, you want to be a starchitect. So, I was able to be one with the opportunities that presented themselves, doing many corporate sector object d'art kinds of structures. I was able to write books and do a lot of research and of course, conservation, which is quite a passion with me as you know, so there's just so much to be done here. I think it's very important that you really have to tread many paths that have been untrodden before, and then you find really excitement in many things. And that's what happened when I was able to work in the humanitarian field. It's one of the most important, and I think the most rewarding, works that one could have done.
MF: So, when you shifted to these projects that are focused on social and environmental sustainability in some of the most impoverished parts of Pakistan, you named your new methodology or philosophy “Barefoot Social Architecture”. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about how this was different from your work before.
YL: See, I'd never really done much work in terms of working with really impoverished communities in Pakistan. I'd done a little bit, I had done some work in informal settlements, had done some work in earth buildings also, but very little. It wasn't until 2005 that the earthquake struck. It the greatest shock that any country could ever have because we lost something like 80,000 people, something like 400,000 families were displaced. And that itself was something that really shook everybody and like everybody else in the country and really from abroad as well , I just felt I had to go there. That was the first time that I experienced how lives would change completely and, the first time that I saw people in deep mourning with the losses they had suffered and the lives that were lost. As a nation, we were all in mourning basically for, for several months.
Like everybody else who was there, we tried to do whatever we could. I had no idea what an architect could do in such a case, because I'd never been involved in anything like that and had not been really prepared for it. And so, I arrived there and I found, yes, there was a, there was something that even architects could do there, which was to start building for safety.
But, also there's a lot of debris around and, um. So that was one thing that could be used. except for my corporate sector kind of extravaganzas that I had built, I was always very conscious that when I'm building for people who do not have enough funds, that I should really, design in a very, very, very economical manner. So, the best thing was to use the debris that was there. I really didn't have any funds. I had wrapped up my practice. I was at that time appointed by, UNESCO to be national advisor at the Lahore Fort, the heritage site. And had already spent something like more than three years there actually, when the earthquake struck.
MF: So how did you manage? Who were your collaborators?
YL: What is amazing in this kind of work is how much help you get from everybody. People you don't even know, they will come and I was very lucky. Somehow it was published somewhere that I was working in the earthquake area and so much help came in terms of volunteers, architectural students, architects from all around the world literally who came to help me. But also, so many of them from Pakistan itself. So that's how I made it actually. That's how I started off with literally no money, no resources, no workforce, but, help just came pouring in and so we managed to do things. And I think that was the most, in terms of learning experience…
I've had lots of learning experiences in my life. But this was something quite, quite different. And, opened up a host of opportunities of what could be done and what should be done. So, it's been really now 15 years that I've been learning. I mean, it's every day, literally, or every month or whatever. Every time we do something, there is a huge learning potential in it because that world is so different from what one might've experienced before, especially as an architect.
I've had opportunity of working with several international agencies and UN organizations, and I really felt, uh, you know, I came and I saw that what was being done is not the right way to go. What happened was that they have decided, the international charity system, or if you like, ecosystem, that exists is to just give away things to people without really focusing on empowering them in terms of their own skills and their own capabilities. And I felt that there's a whole silo system of clusters. So, one agency is doing shelter, they will not do water. If somebody is giving water, they will not do skills. And if somebody will only work with children, I mean, each organization has its own mandate and they only work within that field.
And you know, when this kind of thing happens in disasters in Pakistan, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, which means that we've been hit by earthquakes and floods almost every year since 2005 , or let's say, 2010 at least, every village is now deficient. There's just so many, um, uh, systems that are not there. There's no infrastructure. There's no water. There's no plantation, there is of course, no shelter.
So, I felt that if somebody takes a village and just puts shelter and nothing else, it doesn't really improve the lives of those lives of those people because they still remain deficient in so many ways. I had to see how I can work in a manner that it would be sustainable. Because everybody talks about sustainability, but in the end, once the funds finish, there's nothing more to go. I mean, everybody just wraps up and goes home. What happens to the people? Nobody really is bothered or cares because in the files, it's all completed. Everything is there. You know, they've done their mandate, they've finished their own agenda, and that's it.
And I felt that's not right for countries like ours and so I decided to formulate a system of my own, which is to do with "Barefoot Social Architecture", which is not just giving them shelter or water or whatever, but have a comprehensive and a more integrated plan in terms of empowering them. We work in a kind of co-creating, co-building kind of manner. Everything is participatory and so you empower people as to how they will be able to carry on.
And, to me, it's a rights-based model. There are certain rights that everybody has to have, which is at least one safe room which will not be affected by either flood or an earthquake, at least a toilet because how can women go about using fields and gardens, bushes and all kinds of places… it's toilets, it's not fair… And similarly, water is a right for everybody. And why has everybody not got clean water today? Especially women again, who will for miles just to collect water.
MF: That's a really comprehensive vision. This participatory aspect opens up really interesting possibilities for the women in these communities. So, could you tell us a little bit more about the Chula Initiative and what impact it has had on these societies.
YL: The chula was really like many other kinds of little initiatives that we took on to try to see how we could improve lives of people generally. But of course, very much for women. How it impacts can only be understood once you see them and you work with them. And, this again, you know, as I keep on saying, I'm just so lucky to have had these opportunities to experience all this firsthand.
I felt that they must have a better place to be able to cook. And this squatting on the floor, this is the life of millions of women around the world actually, even today. I think maybe it's about 2.5 million that perish, because of the way they are cooking. And at least half of it would be in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, I would imagine. And so, that is something that should be of great concern to all of us. And it is actually, I have to say there's been lots of movements to have clean cooking stoves.
I believe in low cost, zero carbon and zero waste. This is the methodology that I follow, or dictum that I follow, and so here, because I work in areas which are constantly flood-prone, there is constantly, a danger of all kinds of damage if something is on the floor, so I encourage everything to be put on a platform. And because we've worked out this very neat and very economical way of making platforms.
The design really consists of an earthen platform, which is actually composed of earth and lime, and it's a very neatly designed. You actually light the fire under one chamber and the heat goes into the next chamber and heats the second pan as well, and then it goes to a chimney and you can actually boil water if you put a pan on top of it. Because it's elevated, so it's all very clean and there is no smoke, except when you first light the fuel in the first instance, and then there's no smoke at all.
And also, what we worked out was that we could actually prevent the use of biomass because you know, it’s really detrimental to environmental conditions. So, what we now do is to make briquettes out of sawdust and cow dung so it's really the waste material that's being used. And that's also a source of income for many of the women who make them. So, everything you do really somehow leads to also some kind of income generation, even though it's very small amounts of money. But those small amounts actually make up to be quite large at some point in time.
MF: You found ways of not only treading lightly on the planet, but also creating new income streams and means of empowerment and agency for these communities that you've engaged with. I'd love to hear more about how you use local materials and local techniques, vernacular techniques. I think your bamboo framework that you developed after the 2013 earthquake in Baluchistan represents a very interesting example of this, not only in terms of collaboration with the communities, but also a kind of high-speed process that seems to be part of the necessity of dealing with urgent disaster relief
YL: See, one of the most important things I think that we have to do is disaster preparedness. And mostly it seems that it's really the poorest of the lot that have to suffer these disasters more than somehow the ones who better off because they have more means to be able to ride through any disaster that occurs to them. So, we have to find ways by which we do things, uh, which would really reach out to the poorest of the poor.
And as you know, I believe very strongly in social and ecological justice, both. And what I found since I work in heritage and one of the major aspects of what I do is to do research on vernacular heritage, so I've learned a lot from the way things have been done before and what you call wisdom of centuries that people do possess and it's come from one generation to the other. Of course, we also know that a lot of these skills that were there before are not as efficient as they used to be, in the sense that some parts may have been lost. So, what we need to do now is to somehow make some interventions which will make it, make them suitable for today's world, which has to now deal with much more rigorous conditions.
Because I've been working in heritage, I've learned the use of lime and because when I came to the earthquake area, I'd been working in this amazing Lahore Fort world heritage site where we used lime. As an architect, when I was working before my practice, I had never used lime, but then never knew that lime could be that effective. And that's why most architects have no idea that lime exists because we've all been told that cement is panacea for everything so you use it everywhere. But here in the Fort it was lime and nothing else. And so, I learned to use lime and that's what I took into the flood area.
And when I mixed it with earth, and again, this had never been thought or been practiced, that lime and earth or earth stabilized with lime could be so effective in humanitarian work, I started using it right from the beginning. And, once we came into the flood area, that became even more important because it's entirely water resistant. This slaking of lime that we do for conservation is very, not complicated, but it takes a lot of time for it to be suitable for conservation work. And it could take months or sometimes years to be able to do the work with lime that is stabilized for the water.
So, I had to find a way by which we could use it and we found a technique of dry slaking, which means that, overnight you can have lime, which can actually be worthwhile in terms of making entirely water-resistant structures. And, at some point there is a brick that I could show you if you came to Makli, where my whole zero carbon center is, that this brick has been lying there for something that's three or four years in water and water has hardly had any effect on that. It's a lime mud brick. It's nothing but lime and mud.
So, the question is, the question is, why are people using, you know, burnt brick, which is so damaging to the environment, which requires cutting of trees and forests, which actually employs child labor. We should not be doing it. There's no need for it because lime brick can give you an amazing kind of alternative, which is entirely green, which is also, you know, really, really easy to make and everybody can do it.
MF: That was fascinating. I was very curious about the lime aspect of the materials you use.
YL: I feel that I really need to get this out to people who are working in these areas and who especially are working with earth buildings because earth has this problem of disintegration in water, you know, either at the top or the base or something, it gets infected and it starts disintegrating. So, really, if you were to use lime, you'd be fine. We need to really propagate this somehow because we must stop the use of burnt brick.
But you had also asked me about the bamboo prefab structure. Well, this came about as something as, as you rightly pointed out in 2013. Actually, I'm sorry, we'll have to correct your date, it was, 2015 earthquake, which happened in the North. I mean, we've been using bamboo roofs before so you are correct in saying that because for that also, 2013, we worked out a methodology with mud walls and bamboo for resilience. But the one in 2015 was the one where I decided to design a prefab panel. Like any prefabricated structure, you had different elements and you would put them together on site and that would be it.
And it was amazing how that took the fancy of all these young kids around who were being nothing. And then when they heard this was being done for an earthquake area, they all congregated and said they wanted to learn how to do it. So, that's another thing that if you're doing work which is for general welfare or for others, people want to join in. They want to help. If you give them a cause of this kind, you just be amazed by how they just come forward and help out. So that's how we made lots of them and sent out to Shangla and lower Deer, which is up in the North and I think snow has started by that time and so they survived the snow and everything else.
But that was for emergency kind of shelters, later on, I decided, especially in 2017 and 18, that we should start using that particular model for other buildings also. I found was very easy for us to fabricate them under supervision, then pack them up in lots and send them off and send a person with them who would say how to assemble them with, put the bolts in and so on, so forth. And that has become really the mainstay of our work now because it's just very easy to fabricate. It provides a livelihood opportunity for my people who are living in Makli--these beggar villages that we have been working in.
Just recently, actually, I also designed for Covid-19 a kind of isolation ward using the same panels. So, there's a lot of things that can be done with fabricated bamboo structures. And it has tremendous potential.
MF: I think we should think about where this experimentation and evolution of these strategies that you've had to come up with for emergency moments and natural disasters, present possibilities for long-term solutions to other things and other ongoing problems.
YL: If I may, I think, you know, we need to now think of buildings and architecture beyond just an end by itself. Of course, it's important, but I think we should be thinking of its impact or larger impact on the community. For instance, I really, when I'm designing something, what is uppermost in my mind is how do I give dignity to women? Because that's one of the major issues in countries like mine. So, really when we are designing, it should go beyond just the actual output of, you know, your creation it should be really co-creation in many ways. And the chulas, and many of my shelters are big example of that. And as I keep on saying, our design is but a canvas. And then others are the ones who are coming in and, and you know, you beautifying them and putting the colors and making the drawing everything that they do. And that's what makes it complete. It's not just the design that I did. So, I'm really no longer the author of anything that I designed. It's really a co-creation.
MF: It makes me want to ask a question about not just about the replication or, adapting these methodologies or practices to different parts of Pakistan, but also how your publications through the Heritage Foundation offer knowledge to other people to use what you have learned through your collaborations with communities, but also through your experimentation. There is the possibility for replication within the region and other countries that deal with the same kind of environmental issues and potential disasters of floods and earthquakes. But I'm also wondering what your experience was of taking your exhibition to the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Were these methodologies seen as something that could be used elsewhere? What kind of reception has your practice in this disaster relief area in particular received? And is there interest in adapting it beyond, uh, Pakistan and the region?
YL: This is a very interesting question, Mahnaz. Because, um, you know, when they asked me in 2015 to exhibit my work, I was really quite surprised because I had not thought anybody would be interested in the work that I'm doing. But as you know, I've only worked in Pakistan and I never thought that what I'm doing might have a potential of really going out anywhere, in fact. And so, uh, it was very kind of them. I got some very good comments and, uh, sort of information about the feedback. But it was, I think, probably a little bit too early.
In 2016, RIBA decided to exhibit my work with something like five or six other architects' work… that was for, for disasters again, and the model was put up there. That's now in their permanent collection. This is the Women's Center on stilts. And again, there was a lot of interest. And they'd asked me to give a lecture also, and I found there was some young people who are really interested in what I was saying. So, it was one step forward from Chicago in a sense.
But then in 2000, was it 16 or 17, with the Fukuoka Award, I presented a lecture in Fukuoka well as in Tokyo and there too, again, there was interest in, they said, wow bamboo, my goodness how are you doing it and so on. So, I found that gradually there was interest that was increasing then, uh, later on. I think it was in probably McGill, when I said, okay, you've invited me for a lecture, I want young architects, to actually make a model of this prefab panel in one of the rooms. And they seemed to be all excited about it. Uh, then later on, I think it was in Melbourne. Again, I said, you know, make a model. But then that was about humanitarian architecture and there was a lot of interest. I mean, I found that gradually, around the world, people were thinking about it.
But really, I think, in the last month when I gave about four lectures in England in February and March, I think now the interest is really big to say how can we take these methodologies to other countries. And that's what's amazing and I think Covid-19 is going to play a very important role in this. Of course, the Jane Drew Prize has also helped because they, in a sense, recognize that the work that I'm doing is something that is of universal application. It is not only for Pakistan and really when I talk of social and ecological justice, this is something that's important for everybody.
Because when architects design, it should not really be only the 1% that have accumulated all the wealth. And that's the 1% that mostly architects design for. And my plea has been ever since I've been working really that architects must focus on the 99% also. And what I am saying today to others who now want to take it up. Is that there could be hybrid structures. I mean, I think the principles are "please lower the carbon footprint" and if you want to do that, then even if you have to do hybrid structures where you may use high carbon materials, but there's so many other areas in which you can also use low carbon materials.
For instance, let's say that, and I've done a lot of damage in my own life, as you know, with high carbon buildings, so, if you do maybe a structure in concrete, which is a concrete frame or a steel frame, okay, accepted, I'm making a high rise and you need that. But then internally there's non-load-bearing elements. Why can't you use mud and line brick or gypsum boards or, or flooring that could be bamboo or you know, there's so many other elements that you could be using. So, the point is not that that people should replicate the Pakistan Chula, which is earthen, or my prefab bamboo structures, the green shelters, but, to devise your own, but use the same kind of principles.
And that is where the future is actually, because now with disparities that are going to be far greater as we come out of this, you know, lockdown situation, then we'll all have to be thinking about what we need to do. And architects, you know, as the custodians of the built environment have to do much more than anybody else. So, we need to really change the way that we will be designing in the future.
MF: I can't imagine a better way of speaking to all of the young architects and architectural students at this moment who are emerging in the next couple of months into a world that is completely changed, a world where materials can't be transported the same way they were, they can't move around the way we've gotten used to in our lives, and hopefully there will be some learning about how this lockdown has also been a positive thing.
YL: Let me I add something more on this, if you will, and that is that while we've been also, you know, sitting during this lockdown, we've been thinking quite a lot. And, uh, I found that, you know, there's quite a lot that we've done, but it's not enough because the, uh, in Pakistan itself, the poverty levels are very high and they're going to get even higher still now. I have to get my message out somehow everywhere.
MF: Your social responsibility extends to this act, right? To this point where you are committed to sharing your knowledge through these various means, whether it's lectures or publications or whatever. And the point is to make it as accessible to as wide a public as possible.
YL: I think it would be the same way for being able to survive to the difficult times that we will have. And so, we're really working on now how do we provide training, online training to architects, particularly, so that they can understand, uh, you know, what these materials are, and they, of course, are free to use them as they wish, but at least develop an understanding of how we've used them or I have experimented with them.
In fact, the Institute of Architects, Pakistan, it's the Rawalpindi/Islamabad chapter, actually these days, are running a virtual lectures program with me where I'm talking about all these issues. So, I think you need to talk about it as much as we can because I think the world will need it.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Yasmeen Lari, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)