From Starchitect to Barefoot Architect

From Starchitect to Barefoot Architect

Renowned architect Yasmin Lari still occupies the same house and the adjoining office she built for herself in 1972. The low slung edifice in a quiet suburban street has been a hub of ideas, new projects, collective efforts and lots of research. Ms Lari is the winner of several prestigious awards for her work in architecture and social development; the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, Sitara-e-Imtiaz, the Fukuoka Award, the Jane Drew Prize, among others. Still coping with the recent loss of her eminent husband, historian and writer Suhail Lari, and her own recovery from the COVID-19 virus, Ms Lari is nevertheless considerate, welcoming and brimming with ideas.

One is struck immediately by her simplicity and gentle demeanour and then drawn in by her fascinating journey.

Born into an affluent and progressive-minded family from Allahabad, Yasmin Lari’s Oxford-educated father, Zafar-ul Ahsan, was a member of the Indian Civil Service. “My father was posted to different places and I was actually born in Dera Ghazi Khan.” After Partition, her father became the first Deputy Commissioner of Lahore where the family settled. “He was a very dynamic man, full of fervour and plans for the newly created country,” explains Ms Lari. “And he would talk about the need for development and the dearth of urban planners and architects in the country. So I suppose that’s how the seed was planted in me.”

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Yasmin Lari receives the Jane Drew Prize for innovation, diversity and inclusivity in architecture.

“But while my father was very progressive and anglicised, my mother was a very traditional, religious lady, although she learnt English and groomed herself to keep pace with him. And I can see those influences within myself. I look into modernity, but I am also a traditionalist at heart.” The family was certainly an unusual one. “I learnt to play the sitar while my younger sisters learnt dance and singing. My sister (politician Nasreen Jalil) even learnt how to fly.”

Yasmin Lari is keenly aware of living a very privileged life in Lahore in the reclusive Civil Lines area. The boys went to Aitchison and the girls to St Mary’s. “But it was a very insular life, cut off from the real world. The British may have left but the concept of the ‘Barra Sahib’ was very much intact,” she says. “Then my father did the best thing. He took me out of St Mary’s and put me into a school called Adabistan-e-Sophia, run by two sisters, where I learnt basic Arabic and Persian.” Here Ms Lari’s abiding love of heritage and tradition was reinforced.

After a short stint at Kinnaird College, Ms Lari and her family moved to England. “My father had been appointed Chief Executive of PIA. We visited London and somehow decided to stay on there.” Ms Lari grabbed the rare opportunity to study in England and decided to apply to an architectural school. “Not surprisingly, I met none of their criteria,” she laughs. “So for two years I slogged. I enrolled in the Ealing School of Art for evening classes and did my O and A levels at the same time.” All the hard work paid off and Lari ultimately finished her degree in architecture from the prestigious Brookes School of Architecture at Oxford.

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Lari meets with Prince Charles at the INTBAU World Congress in London.

Along the way, Lari married her cousin Suhail Lari, who was also studying at Oxford, and the couple had a daughter. Ms Lari speaks fondly of those years as a young couple. In Oxford, money was tight but the cultural life was rich. “My husband started this tradition of having an open house every Sunday,” she recalls. “We just had two small rooms and a galley kitchen but would have 20, 30 people over for lunch. People would drop in and discussions would go on into the night. We removed the furniture and sat on the floor, books stacked up around us. I learnt how to make very good spaghetti with tomato sauce, which was the cheapest food to eat. By the end of the month we had no money left, but we never felt poor. It was fun.” 

 On their return to Karachi, Lari was ready to start work and found that there were barely any qualified architects in Karachi. In fact, she has the distinction of being the first female architect of Pakistan. “Even in Oxford, there were very few women in architecture at the time. Of the five who had joined, maybe two graduated.”

This was in 1963 and Karachi was a very different place then, progressive and modern. “I used to wear saris even on site. Initially, the contractors didn’t want to take me seriously. They would even place the most rickety ladders for me to climb to scare me off. I had to prove myself.” But the architect makes light of any such experiences. “You know I am always asked about my struggle being a woman in this field. But the fact is that in this country, when you come from a background like mine, you just have so much privilege, what can you possibly complain about? Even today, I feel women architects in Pakistan have an easier time than women in the West.”

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Yasmin Lari receives the Fukuoka Prize for outstanding work in creating or preserving Asian culture.

 The first project Lari was given was to design a house for her brother, who was to be married. “I designed a few more houses after that, but luckily not too many,” laughs the architect who finds designing houses tedious. “But I did specialise in making inexpensive homes and I think I got some attention for that.”

Lari’s ideas also began to slowly evolve. “When I came back from England, I went through an un-learning or re-learning phase. Conditions in Pakistan were far removed from what we had been taught.” Ms Lari’s husband was a very keen photographer and she would go along with him in his quest to photograph different towns and walled cities where she had never been before. “This opened my eyes. The poverty really struck me and I understood that our context and climate had its own needs.” 

Her first big break came with a Naval Housing Scheme. “I was completely opposed to the concept of multi-storey walk-ups and designed a housing scheme with open sky terraces for families. I believe it is still quite popular.”

While Lari’s career was moving ahead, the Bhutto years hit her family hard. Her father, who owned several businesses, including the Sun newspaper, was now included in the famous 22 families affected by the nationalisation scheme. In the wake of this blow, Ms Lari was very surprised to receive a call from Mr Bhutto’s office, saying that he wanted to meet her. “I was very hesitant. I went with much trepidation but was very pleasantly surprised. He was extremely courteous, he knew everything about me and my work and in fact offered me several projects. I told him I wanted to work with mud and design a village. I was so happy! I thought I had been discovered,” she laughs. But her family were outraged at the thought of her working for the man who had destroyed their livelihood. Instead, Lari decided to keep a very low profile.

Later, however, she did design the low-cost Angoori Bagh housing, working with Dr. Mubashar Hasan. “Dr. Mubashar was a socialist, so he organised a meeting with the locals so that we could discuss their needs. They asked us, ‘where will our chickens go?’” Lari, once again, implemented the open courtyard and terrace style housing she is an advocate of. “The sehan is where the family, especially women, live their lives. But the problem with government housing is that it is always more expensive than what the people can do themselves. So it never goes to the target group, it always goes to a higher income group. The same happened here.”

In the eighties, Yasmin Lari’s star rose high and she designed several landmark buildings in Karachi. These include the Finance and Trade Centre, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the PSO Building. These buildings are ultra-modern structures characterised by granite, glass and steel, far removed from the earthy aesthetic that she now advocates. “I’ve said this before. It was a heady experience being a starchitect,” she smiles. “I think I am atoning for it now.”

In 1980, Lari and her husband Suhail Lari set up the Heritage Foundation as a family trust in Karachi, with a view to documenting old buildings. As a result of the Foundation’s efforts, in 1994, the Heritage Preservation law was passed and some 600 buildings were protected under this law. Yasmin Lari was now getting more and more involved with research and heritage work.

In the year 2000, she retired from architecture to devote herself to writing. “I decided that I needed to get off this train. You start questioning the relevance of what you are doing. And it was the wisest decision I took.” Then another unexpected opportunity came her way. “I was asked to serve as National Advisor at the Lahore Fort, where the mirror-encrusted ceiling was to be stabilised as part of a UNESCO project.” Lari grabbed this opportunity to document the previously uncharted Fort. “I had all the staff at my disposal and access to files and drawings I never would have otherwise. We documented every part of the fort and I delved into the manuscripts left by the Mughals and the British. I walked at night where Nur Jehan or Mumtaz Mahal might have walked… it was an amazing experience.”

Then came the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan which literally shook the country to its core. Ms Lari immediately wanted to visit the affected region. “My husband thought I was crazy, I was already 65 years old at the time. But I was determined.” She is still haunted by the moment she arrived at the earthquake site. “We reached at night, some 5000 feet above sea level and it was pitch dark. The atmosphere was incredibly bleak and full of despair. It was horrible.”

This was during the General Musharraf era, and a meeting was held with the army heads and all the NGO’s involved. “I was the last to get a turn to speak and I ranted about using cheap, local materials and traditional building methods. I told them I wanted to use lime instead of cement,” recalls Ms Lari.  “‘That’s very novel,’ I was told. To which I replied ‘Well the Mughals used it for hundreds of years.’”

In response to a call for volunteers, Ms Lari was joined in her efforts by young architects from all over the world. “I am so blessed. I could not have done anything alone. We accomplished a lot, re-built several villages.” But she feels very strongly about the role played by donor agencies. “The World Bank made beggars of us. In that respect, the effort was a disaster as far as I’m concerned. They had people lining up for money and then constructing concrete blocks.”

Ms Lari reiterates that nobody is interested in inexpensive solutions. “No one makes money in that case, neither the government bodies nor donor agencies.” So what is the solution to providing large scale low-cost housing to those who need it? “People can build their own homes,” she says. “We have launched our video tutorials; step-by-step guides to building bamboo homes. I believe there are four elements that are the right of every family. First is a safe one-room shelter, then clean drinking water. Also access to sanitation, it is the height of indignity for women to go to the fields to relieve themselves; and lastly a safe place to cook.” Ms Lari has also designed the Pakistan Choolha or stove, which can be built at a cost of 1000 rupees, and is attractive, user-friendly and fuel efficient. Till date, some 70,000 such stoves are in use.

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Experts from around the world gather for the INTBAU international Conference in Makli.

Ms Lari’s work in Makli, Sindh has also received international recognition. Initially drawn to Makli to document the necropolis with her husband, Ms Lari implemented the philosophy coined as Barefoot Social Architecture here. Not only were low-cost mud and bamboo homes built, but the local beggar community was trained to make the tiles, thatching and other materials used in construction. As a result, the community has seen a 70 percent rise above the poverty level. In 2019, Makli was also the site for the International Network for Traditional Building Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) international conference and hosted experts from around the world. The structures set up for the conference were lauded for the zero-carbon methods of construction.

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Lari supervises the construction of a Disaster Risk Reduction Centre in Kot Diji, Upper Sindh.

“You have to give the poor the best design, you can’t give them rudimentary solutions,” emphasises Ms Lari. “For me, dignity of women is the bottom line. We will teach people how to build their own toilets, make compost and also launch a massive training programme for artisans all via our video tutorials.” 

“The poor are given the worst places to live. There are haris who live in the kachcha area which floods every year. So I tell them, build your homes on stilts. Reinforce your roofs, use that for storage.  And if uprooted, build again. It will cost 15 to 20 thousand rupees.”

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The low-cost Angoori Bagh Housing designed in Lari’s signature style.

Currently Ms Lari is devoting most of her time to the ambitious renovation and re-modelling project of Denso Hall in Karachi and the streets around it. This historic hall was the first reading room and library for natives in Karachi. A Heritage Foundation project, it aims at rehabilitating Karachi’s historic core with a walking street, food courts and four Miyawaki style urban forests.

“My dream is to have a heritage trail from Karachi Port Trust to Empress Market and the segment from Denso Hall is the first part of that.” The funds for this project have been raised entirely by the Heritage Foundation. Her three children are among her most ardent supporters. “The best part is that now the local shopkeepers are also on board. In fact, the locals will form a committee to oversee maintenance once our work here is done.”

Zehra Chughtai
Zehra Chughtai
The writer is a prominent freelance journalist and runs her own interiors and lifestyle online publication.
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