With nearly half a century of in-the-field experience, Pakistan’s first female architect leads an ambitious nonprofit, the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan.
In a country not historically known for diverse opportunities for women, Yasmeen Lari has carved out an astonishingly broad and deep career. Educated at the School of Architecture at Oxford Brookes, she returned to her native country of Pakistan in 1963 to discover, with some surprise, that she had inadvertently become the country’s first female architect. Inspired by the challenges inherent to her homeland—which she characterizes as “an industrially less-developed country, [with] high levels of illiteracy and poverty, booming urban centers, and, more recently, multiple major natural disasters,” she has spent the past half century finding ways to serve local communities with groundbreaking vision.A practicing architect until 2000, she designed buildings for a wide range of clients, from state- of-the-art corporate campuses to informal settlements and low-income housing. “As a woman architect working in Pakistan, I feel that I was able to develop a greater understanding of marginalized communities compared to my male colleagues,” Lari says. She introduced low-rise, high-density buildings in areas where high-rise and six-story walkups dominated; prioritized courtyards and terraces where women could carry out household chores, grow vegetables, and keep chickens; and created designs that enabled mothers to watch children playing, following urbanist Jane Jacobs’s maxim of “eyes on the street.”
Lari retired from private practice 12 years ago to focus on writing, research, and her work with the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, a nonprofit she established with her husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari, documenting and safeguarding Pakistan’s 8,000-year-old architectural culture. Most recently, she has devoted herself to disaster relief, developing zero-carbon-footprint construction methods using vernacular techniques and local materials like lime, bamboo, and adobe. Working with Architecture for Humanity, Nokia, and the Swiss Pakistan Society, among others, she has built nearly 2,000 sustainable shelter units, which she hopes will help advance green design in Pakistan—as well as demonstrate the essential but less-celebrated role architecture can play in humanitarian aid. “I often tell my colleagues, let us not treat disaster-affected households as destitute, needing handouts,” says Lari. “Rather, let us give them due respect and treat them as we would a corporate-sector client. If we can encourage that elusive element of pride among traumatized families, half the battle would be won, for they would soon be on the road to self-reliance.”