Yasmeen Lari retired from her architectural practice in 2000, having been part of designing Pakistan’s most iconic projects during a distinguished career as the country’s first female architect. She once referred to it ruefully as being a ‘starchitect’.
But while she was writing books about her country’s cultural heritage, a disaster set her on a new path. A huge earthquake killed 80,000 people and left 400,000 families displaced in northern Pakistan in 2005. “I felt I had to go and help,” says Lari. “I’d never done any disaster work, or any projects in the mountains. I had no workforce, I’d given up my practice. But I found that, if you do something beyond your usual comfort zone, then help will always come.”
She worked with displaced families to rebuild their homes using mud, stone, lime and wood from the surrounding debris and trained local people to use materials at hand to rebuild in a better, safer way.
“I think we often misunderstand what kind of help is needed,” she told the Guardian in 2020. “The aid mindset is to think of everyone as helpless victims who need things done for them, but we have to help people to do things for themselves. There’s so much that can be done with what’s already there, using 10 times less money.” And that helps with recovery. “Something people have helped to make is much more valued than something simply given.”
Through this work, she became known as an ‘Architect for the Poorest of the Poor’. Her Barefoot Social Architecture provides training in low-tech, participatory, and disaster-resilient methods and has enabled disaster-affected communities, particularly women, to become self-reliant.
Now 82, she has been awarded one of the world’s highest honours for architecture – the Royal Gold Medal for 2023 – for this amazing second career. And she is delighted about what it says about future directions in architecture.
“I never imagined that as I focus on my country’s most marginalized people — venturing down uncharted vagabond pathways — I could still be considered for the highest of honours in the architectural profession,” she said on hearing the news that she will receive the award. She sees it as heralding a new direction for architecture, one that ”encourages all architects to focus not only on the privileged but also humanity at large that suffers from disparities, conflicts and climate change” in order to achieve “climate resilience, sustainability and eco justice in the world.”
She has shown us how architecture changes lives for the better, said Simon Alford, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who chaired the selection committee. “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.”
In 2020, when she received the Jane Drew Prize, she spoke of the need to put much more effort into disaster preparedness and was critical of how aid agencies offer “universal solutions” and work in silos.
Since 2005, Lari and her team at the Heritage Foundation have been working with bamboo, mud and lime, following the principles of low cost, zero carbon and zero waste. They designed modular community centres on stilts, and shelters using a cross-braced bamboo framework that could withstand very strong earthquakes and easily be rebuilt using the same organic materials. Their training programmes get rural villagers to make building components and products that they sell to each other. Each village specializes in making a different item, from bamboo panels to glazed tiles, mud bricks and ceramic goods, as well as fuel briquettes and soap, creating “barefoot entrepreneurs” in the process.
Chulah stoves, which are enclosed on raised podiums built and decorated by local women, not only makes cooking cleaner and safer than open-flame fires on the floor, but have transformed the women’s self-esteem and social status. Since 2014, more than 60,000 stoves have been built and the local female entrepreneurs who build them earn 25 times their original income. The Foundation now trains the next generation of craftswomen at the Zero Carbon Cultural Centre where they can learn to make everything from terracotta bowls to composting eco-toilets.
“Something I didn’t understand at the beginning,” she says, is that “just by using earth I unleashed a huge reservoir of creativity and design in women particularly.” Pakistani crafts in general have “patterns galore, whether it’s fabric, whether it’s stone”. The stuff of the new buildings allows this love and knowledge of ornament to be expressed on the walls of emergency housing.“
Although her work is focused on hard-hit areas of Pakistan, she believes its principles are applicable more or less universally,” says the Guardian’s Rowan Moore. “The effects of climate emergency are, after all, everywhere. And the materials Lari champions are also widespread in time and place: she points out that building in earth was once common including in parts of Britain, while the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about lime before the birth of Christ. She acts local, in other words, but thinks global.”
‘This will not be swept away’: the bamboo homes helping Pakistan’s post-flood rebuild. Guardian, Jul. 25, 2023
Architect Yasmeen Lari: ‘The international colonial charity model will never work’. Guardian, May 7, 2023
Royal Gold Medal 2023 recipient: Yasmeen Lari. Royal Institute of British Architects.
Barefoot Social Architecture: 10 Projects by Yasmeen Lari, the 2023 RIBA Royal Gold Medal Winner. Arch Daily, May 4, 2023
The barefoot architect: ‘I was a starchitect for 36 years. Now I’m atoning’. Guardian, Apr. 1, 2020
Cover image: Yasmeen Lari outside the women’s centre on stilts she designed in Sindh province; built to survive floods, it’s made from bamboo, mud and lime. Photograph: Heritage Foundation of Pakistan/Guardian.