Q&A with Pakistan's First Female Architect
As profiled in our "Women of Influence" roundup in our July/August 2012 issue, Yasmeen Lari is the closest thing Pakistan has to a design superhero. After years working as an architect, designing buildings for a wide range of clients, from corporate campuses to low-income housing, she left private practice in order to focus on issues close to her heart, including developing sustainable and vernacular disaster relief housing and dedicating herself to writing, research, and her work with the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, the ambitious nonprofit she developed with her husband. Here, we ask her questions about her architectural work, her philanthropical passions, and the unique challenges of working in her homeland.
Were you really "the first female architect in Pakistan"? What does this mean, and can you give us some context?
Yes. I believe it is so. It was not really planned. When I returned from England after my studies I found that I was the first one. There were very few qualified architects at the time in any case, so I was also one of the few qualified professionals in my field. At the time that I took up my architectural studies, only selected professions seemed to be open to women —for example, medicine or education. Today, of course, the situation has changed entirely; not only are women in diverse professions, some very tough ones even, such as pilots, but they excel in their studies and are doing well in almost all fields that they choose to be in.
Tell us a bit about your background. What drew you to design, what road did you take to get where you are today?
In early days I had taken up drawing and sketching but did not really know much about the requirements to become an architect. My father had been a bureaucrat (he started off in the Indian Civil Service, when Pakistan and India were ruled by Britain), and after the independence of Pakistan in 1947, he became known as one of the most dynamic in the field. When I was growing up, he was responsible for developing huge tracts of desert into urban centers as well as heading the planning and development organization of the historic city of Lahore, and he often discussed the limited number of professionals in architecture and planning disciplines. I guess that stayed with me and when I went to England for my studies at the age of 15, I opted to take up architecture.
Pakistan, as a storehouse of heritage and an industrially less developed country, provides an opportunity to work in diverse fields. Our heritage treasure spans over 7,000 years, much of which remains unexplored, and most sites require urgent safeguarding measures—it ranges from archaeological sites to major monuments, urban historic architecture to rural and vernacular traditions. 90 percent of our population is marginalized with high levels of illiteracy and poverty, while our urban centers are booming with national and multinational corporate sectors; more recently, perhaps due to global warming, we are having to deal with multiple major disasters, such as the earthquake of 2005, the floods of 2010, and the Sindh Floods of 2011. As a result of which hundreds of thousands of families have become shelter-less.
So you can see why I was able to undertake different kinds of tasks as an architect—designing state of the art buildings for the corporate sector; working in informal settlements and low-income housing with focus on women’s needs; advocacy, research, and conservation for heritage projects along with writing monographs and training manuals; working in post-disaster communities with a concentration on sustainable shelter and women’s economic empowerment. The latest work is in zero-carbon-footprint construction (using lime, bamboo and adobe/mud) that is also Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) compliant. It is my effort to bring out-of-the-box solutions to the table. By mobilizing student volunteers and artisans through training (and the creation of the Mobile Barefoot Karavan Teams) we are in the process of helping communities to become strong and resilient to withstand the next floods themselves.
How has the architecture and design scene evolved in Pakistan since you were a student?
Having been trained as an architect in the West, for me there was a period of unlearning as I tried to relate to the reality of the country, and roamed our amazing historic towns for inspiration.
During the early days of my career, most people were not aware of the role that an architect played in shaping the built environment. Today, the profession of architecture has become much stronger and there is now acceptance of the essential role of an architect. As president of Institute of Architects at the time, I had the privilege to lead the movement for creation of legislative measures to provide recognition to the professions of architecture and planning through formation of Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners in 1983. Most of us who had begun their careers during the 20th century had been influenced by the modern architectural movement taking root in the West. More recently, there is a focus on regionalism and search for more appropriate local alternatives. However, most buildings, especially for the corporate sector continue to be international in character.
As a result of the research that I have carried out on vernacular methodologies through construction of almost 2,000 sustainable shelter units since 2005, a great deal of technical information for building sustainable green structures has now been developed. Because of the vast data that is now available through our work in the last six years, it is my hope that architects in Pakistan will begin to use our findings to design buildings that incorporate local materials and improved vernacular techniques.
Tell us about the role of women in design in Pakistan, both in the past and today. Are there special challenges that come along with being a woman in the industry? What has been your experience? Are things evolving? And what do you see as the future, where are things going?
As a woman architect working in Pakistan, I feel that I was able to develop a greater understanding of marginalized communities and particularly women compared to my male colleagues. Consequently, my designs always took into consideration the needs of women and children. There are certain elements that are critical for large-scale housing: building low rise high density habitat (as opposed to matchbox-like high-rise or six-story walkups, which are prevalent in the country); creating open-to-sky spaces such as courtyards or terraces (which are possible at little additional cost) for carrying out household chores and for growing vegetables or keeping their chickens (for better nourishment for children); and design that would allow women to keep an eye on children while playing (following Jane Jacob’s maxim of "eyes on the street").
I am gratified that today in most architectural schools, more than 50 percent of the class consists of women, who are often rated among the top students.
For women in Pakistan, as I imagine elsewhere also, we have to "earn" respect in any field. As is well known, a woman carries a triple burden, and also has to battle at every front to achieve acceptance.
When I returned home as an architect, it took some time before people accepted me as a competent professional. It may have been because I was a woman, but also because I was young. But one soon learns to handle the impediments and I do not think I had to deal with too many hurdles. On the one hand, generally Pakistan's society is not supportive of women working. But at the same time, when women decide to work, they are often treated with a great deal of courtesy. I find that being a woman has not hindered me from taking on challenges that presented themselves.
What are the most pressing design-related needs or challenges in Pakistan today, and how are you addressing them through your work?
In a society such as ours, there are many aspects that architects could deal with. However, since the training of an architect in the country is designed on the same pattern as most industrialized countries, young architects are not able to develop an understanding of the varied paths they could pursue. When working for disadvantaged populations, a heightened design sense is required because of greater deficits that exist. So far the architectural profession has not paid much attention to rural communities. However, the recurring disasters have provided a great opportunity to learn more about vernacular and traditional ways of construction and the use of local sustainable materials. The challenge is to bring these sustainable traditional construction methodologies into the mainstream to form the basis for green architectural practices.
On my part, while working in post disaster communities for the last 6 years, I have been able to carry out a great deal of experimentation with local materials, most notably adobe/mud and lime. Since 2009, experimentation with the use of bamboo has yielded exceptional results. My effort now is to spread the message as wide as possible through training of professionals and artisans for construction in post-disaster rural communities but also to encourage the use of "improved vernacular" for tourists’ retreats.
What projects or associations or achievements you are proudest of?
As an architect in private practice, I was fortunate that most of the time I was able to choose the projects I designed, which varied from low-income housing (Angoori Bagh, Lahore) to state of the art buildings for corporate sector (Pakistan State Oil head offices, Karachi), and a variety of other projects.
As a conservationist and as UNESCO’s national advisor, the work on the World Heritage Site of Lahore Fort was a privilege and a most enjoyable experience when I led the team that saved the endangered 17th century Shish Mahal ceiling.
As an architectural historian, the book on Karachi (The Dual City: Karachi During the Raj) that I co-wrote with my son Mihail Lari, was a labour of love that was seven years in the making.
As a humanitarian worker, trying to find solutions to reach out to extensive displaced populations, and work for women’s economic empowerment that transforms the communities and their mindsets, has been among the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Can you elaborate on why you retired from architectural practice in 2000?
My last project was a building for the Dutch bank ABN Amro, which was sited in a most select and historic part of Karachi. It was an enjoyable project as I wanted the building to be a good neighbor to an 1868 Frere Hall built by the British. But by 2000, I also felt that I was not able to devote sufficient time to my writing. My husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari, who had retired after having been chief executive of an insurance company, had become a full time scholar. Over the last many decades, we had collected a great deal of research material on history and heritage of the country and it had become important to compile and publish the material.
It was a difficult decision to give up architecture, but at the same time, I felt that heritage work and writing had become critical. It was clear that as long as I continued in architectural practice, it was not possible to devote sufficient time to research and publishing.
I am glad that I made that decision, since it opened so many any other doors for me and allowed me to focus on activities that are more meaningful and relevant for my country.
Tell us a bit about what you're working on/focusing on today, and what's next for you.
These days, my focus is on trying to develop alternatives for post-disaster communities in order to strengthen their own capabilities to withstand next disasters. The work on heritage safeguarding has also become extremely important for me, particularly in developing training programs for young people for heritage conservation work, as well as involving young volunteers in heritage safeguarding activities. For the last several years, periodically we have been getting volunteers to wash and clean heritage landmarks. In May, we took 50 university student volunteers for the cleaning of a 15th century cluster of tombs at the World Heritage Site of Makli, Thatta. The group carried out gentle cleaning, after which, depending upon their own interest, they photographed, sketched, filmed and generally recorded various aspects of these amazing tombs. It is my belief that we need to pursue similar activities with the youth to foster pride and a stake in heritage that leads to a sense of identity in the globalized world of today.
Do you consider the work you do a form of philanthropy? What do you see as the role of philanthropy in architecture, and vice versa?
In a country such as Pakistan, no sensitive person can remain oblivious to the needs of the vast majority that is deprived of even basic necessities. But we have to be careful not to present handouts to people, but to develop their own capabilities so that they could rise above adversity. An architect is well trained to be able to respond to design challenges—to build economically but at the same time provide comfortable and appropriate structures that fulfill the needs of the disadvantaged communities. I think one has to tackle the issues with a great deal of humility—no prima donna attitude will work here—so that one is able to also learn from the centuries old wisdom that is found in traditional methodologies.
I often tell my colleagues: Let us not treat the disaster-affected households as destitute needing handouts; 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, shelterless families, half the battle would be won, for they would soon be on the road to self reliance. There are many ways to foster pride in a community, but among the most effective are through well designed shelters and community buildings.