It tells you something about her that the first thing Yasmeen Lari wants to know is why the AJ has travelled to Cambridge to interview her.
She really shouldn’t be surprised. As Pakistan’s first female architect, her profile as a starchitect turned trailblazing humanitarian activist has risen and risen in recent years. In 2020 she won the Jane Drew Prize, part of the AJ and AR’s W Awards, for her contribution to raising the profile of women in architecture and design and last October she took up the position of Sir Arthur Marshall Visiting Professor in Sustainable Design at the Cambridge School of Architecture.
Lari, dubbed ‘the barefoot architect’ because of her espousal of ‘barefoot’ community-driven architecture in her home country, delivers lectures all over the world, is about to receive an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Oxford Brookes and has featured in both the Financial Times and Time magazine in recent weeks. But perhaps she feels a little removed from the cut and thrust of architectural practice. After all, she left behind her role as a renowned commercial architect way back in 2000 to forge a very different kind of life, helping the poorest in Pakistan recover from disasters by rebuilding their homes, indeed their lives, with low-carbon vernacular materials such as earth, lime and bamboo.
I meet her in the glass and timber surrounds of the Níall McLaughlin-designed café at Jesus College, where she’s residing for the academic year. Now 82, she is elegantly dressed, radiating warmth and charisma combined with a formidable sense of purpose. I feel guilty asking her to walk upstairs but she agrees with me when I suggest we take up the offer from her host here at Jesus, Nick Ray, to talk in the quieter, more private space of his book-lined study.
So what lessons can Lari teach us about tackling the overlapping crises of climate change and global inequality? And what led her to work at the cutting edge of both?
‘The less money there is, the better you can perform because then you are actually able to make use of resources far better’
It doesn’t take long before she’s raising the problem with conventional Western aid to countries like Pakistan, which is struggling to recover after devastating floods last summer caused by melting glaciers and monsoon rains which followed a heatwave. It can be difficult to grasp the scale of this disaster but it plunged an area the size of the UK under water, killing more than 1,700 people and making 2.1 million homeless.
‘I don’t believe in money any more,’ she says. ‘I think the less money there is, the better you can perform because then you are actually able to make use of resources far better. So I don’t want much money coming into my country.’
The words are startling but Lari is not exactly arguing that cash is irrelevant. She has worked on a pilot programme that has successfully transformed the lives of families for £145 each but she is critical of what she calls the ‘Western colonial charity model’ which, underpinned by the UN, rushes to apply expensive and unsuitable sticking plasters every time a disaster strikes and is highly resistant to change.
In architectural terms, the funding is typically poured into multinational-produced shelters made of steel girders and concrete blocks. Not only are these high in embodied carbon, worsening climate change, but they produce housing that, unlike traditional builds, tends to collapse when another disaster strikes.
‘I treat these people as partners, not as victims … Don’t treat them as if they can’t do things’
Aid agencies, she says, ‘feel that countries like ours have to be given handouts and then they have to be told what to do. When aid comes in, it does help but it’s really not sustainable. There is so much money coming into the country but it is not serving its purpose because the poverty levels are still very high.’
Instead, Lari advocates a holistic ‘no charity’ model in which assistance is given in the form of training and capacity-building, focused on empowering the very people who require the help. ‘It’s a participatory design,’ she says. ‘I treat these people as partners, not as victims … Don’t treat them as if they can’t do things.’
This emphasis on skills, self-reliance and entrepreneurship, which has led to the rehabilitation of a thousand Pakistani households, reminds one of the proverb ‘give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’. And it’s clear that Lari believes the effect can snowball.
The skills in question range from low-tech, low-cost construction techniques to flood mitigation, growing food in unpromising areas and adapting existing technologies, such as Lari’s design for an improved version of the chulha stove, which has dramatically cut pollution and helped to raise the status of women (see box below).
Back in the 80s and 90s, Lari designed Postmodern landmarks of steel, cement and reflective glass for corporations including foreign banks and oil and gas companies in one of the world’s biggest cities, Karachi. Her work in disaster risk reduction – as opposed to ‘disaster relief’ – began with the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people and destroyed the homes of 3.5 million.
‘By that time I’d given up my own practice, luckily,’ she says, recalling a growing dissatisfaction with the conventional role of the architect. ‘I decided it was time for me to, you know, get off this train. It carries you along and I felt that, in a way, every corporate client is similar to each other and everything you do [as an architect] is similar … I wasn’t doing much except what my corporate clients were demanding.’
Two decades prior to leaving practice, she and her late husband, a historian, had also set up the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, so, in parallel with her corporate work, she had already developed an interest in traditional buildings and construction techniques.
‘Whatever we are told by the client, we feel we have to fulfil that. I’ve always felt that’s not the right way to go’
There is, of course, plenty of this in evidence at Jesus, a wealthy college which dates back to 1496 and is known for its expansive lawns and monastic architecture owing to its earlier history as a nunnery.
So how is Lari finding her time here? She says she has been working hard and has found Cambridge ‘secluded’. But while one senses she is itching to get back to her hands-on work back home, she clearly enjoys her academic interactions at the university and is delighted that her teachings have resonated with students.
‘What I’m happy about is that what I talked about makes sense to the students,’ she says. ‘Because, what I was hoping for was that at least some of them will veer towards another way of practising architecture. This has been my effort for many years now because I’ve given so many lectures around the world. I find that the people who really want to listen to me are the young people.’
This brings her to the future and the sense that the climate crisis is ushering in fundamental changes whether we like them or not.
‘All the concrete that we use, whether on the pavement or in the buildings, is contributing to [climate change],’ she says. ‘So, what are we trying to do with our cities? What are we doing with ourselves?’
The question particularly applies to architects, Lari insists, because they hold a ‘great responsibility’ when it comes to shaping the built environment.
‘If we are not careful, we are damaging the planet in many ways that we don’t perhaps understand,’she says. ‘We are doing it unknowingly because we don’t understand the implication of how we build.’
Part of the way to cut the Gordian knot, Lari believes, is for architects to realise they have a deep responsibility to promote social justice and a professional influence greater than they imagine.
‘We normally accept the commission that’s given to us. Whatever we are told by the client, we feel, OK, we have to fulfil that. I’ve always felt that’s not the right way to go because it’s the responsibility of all of us to consider how our design will benefit the general public.
‘I think sometimes we forget that it is possible for us to do that.’
Yasmeen Lari: the pioneering practitioner
Source:Heritage Foundation of Pakistan
- Her design for an adapted chulha stove (pictured) has improved health outcomes in Pakistan and raised the status of women in the family while creating a cohort of female entrepreneurs who have built more than 80,000 of the mud and lime-plaster stoves since 2014.
- Lari’s Heritage Foundation of Pakistan worked with local people to build one of the largest bamboo structures in the world, the Zero Carbon Cultural Centre in Makli, a training and community centre for poor and marginalised communities in the southern Pakistani town.
- King Charles is a big supporter of her low-carbon development work. Lari has responded by establishing a branch of his International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) in Pakistan and the two met only this month at a Buckingham Palace reception for Commonwealth leaders.