Yasmeen Lari, born in 1941, holds the distinction of being Pakistan’s first female architect. Renowned for her impactful contributions at the nexus of architecture and social justice, Lari officially retired from architectural practice in 2000. However, her legacy continues through the UN-recognized NGO, Heritage Foundation Pakistan, which she founded. This organization is dedicated to humanitarian relief work and historical conservation initiatives in rural villages across Pakistan. Recognizing her outstanding contributions, Lari received the prestigious Fukuoka Prize in 2016 and the Royal Gold Medal from RIBA in 2023.
Yasmeen Lari, born in 1941 in Dera Ghazi Khan, spent her formative years in and around Lahore within a distinguished Iraqi Biradari clan. Growing up in an environment influenced by her father Zafarul Ahsan, an ICS officer involved in major development projects, Lari was introduced to the world of architecture. Her exposure to architectural endeavors during her father’s work ignited her interest in the field. Notably, her sister is the Pakistani politician Nasreen Jalil.
At the age of 15, Yasmeen Lari ventured beyond Pakistan for the first time, accompanying her family to London. Initially, the trip was intended as a vacation, but circumstances led to Lari and her siblings enrolling in school in London. Despite facing rejection from architecture school initially, she persevered and spent two years studying arts in London before gaining acceptance into the School of Architecture at Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Polytechnic).
Architectural Trailblazer: Yasmeen Lari's Journey and Legacy
Upon completing her education at the Oxford School of Architecture in 1964, Yasmeen Lari, at the age of 23, returned to Pakistan with her husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari. They founded the architecture firm Lari Associates in Karachi, Sindh, Pakistan, marking a significant milestone as Yasmeen became the country’s first female architect. However, she encountered initial challenges at construction sites, where her authority and knowledge were questioned due to her gender.
In 1969, Lari achieved the distinction of becoming an elected Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).
Throughout her career, Lari undertook diverse projects, including notable contributions like the Angoori Bagh Housing (ABH) in 1978, and commercial structures such as the Taj Mahal Hotel in Karachi (1981), the Finance and Trade Center (1989), and the Pakistan State Oil House (PSO Company headquarters) in Karachi (1991).
In the year 2000, Yasmeen Lari retired from active architectural practice. However, her commitment to historical preservation endures. She serves as an advisor for UNESCO projects, holds the role of executive director at Heritage Foundation Pakistan, and acts as the chairperson of the Karavan Initiatives, showcasing her ongoing dedication to preserving and promoting Pakistan’s cultural heritage.
Humanitarian Architect: Yasmeen Lari's Impact
Yasmeen Lari, alongside her husband, founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan in 1980, marking the beginning of their commitment to humanitarian causes. Since 2010, Lari has overseen the construction of around 50,000 homes in Pakistan, focusing on aiding victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.
Emphasizing traditional building techniques and local materials, Lari has played a crucial role in post-disaster reconstruction. Notable projects include the 2013 rebuilding after floods in the Sindh Valley region and efforts in 2023 to create low-cost, sustainable dwellings using bamboo and mud-plastered techniques.
Her humanitarian initiatives extend to aiding victims of the 2013 Balochistan earthquake in Awaran District. In 2018, Lari’s innovative design of a fuel-efficient chulah (stove) earned her the World Habitat award.
Yasmeen Lari’s impact reaches beyond her architectural work; she is a founding member and current chairwoman of the Pakistani Chapter of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) since 2018, showcasing her dedication to preserving traditional practices in Pakistan.
Architectural Philosophy in Southeast Asia: Yasmeen Lari's Perspective
Yasmeen Lari, reflecting on architectural practice in Southeast Asia, encapsulates the essence of two distinct philosophies. Mies van der Rohe, a proponent of meticulous detail, prioritizes creating a superb building and then situating it optimally. In contrast, Hassan Fathy emphasizes starting anew, allowing new structures to organically evolve from the daily lives of the people they serve, weaving into the cultural fabric.
Lari’s prominence lies in her contributions at the intersection of architecture and social justice, a domain where her work harmonizes with the principles advocated by architects like Hassan Fathy.
Recognitions and Awards
Yasmeen Lari’s impactful contributions to cultural and historical conservation through the Heritage Foundation have garnered international recognition:
In 2002, the Heritage Foundation received the U.N. Recognition Award from the United Nations for its outstanding efforts.
In 2006, Yasmeen Lari was honored with the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, one of Pakistan’s highest civil awards, acknowledging her services to the architectural profession and heritage conservation.
Recognizing her achievements, she received the “1st Wonder Women of the Year Award” in Pakistan in 2011.
The year 2016 brought the prestigious Fukuoka Prize for Arts & Culture to Yasmeen Lari.
Yasmeen Lari was awarded the Jane Drew Prize in 2020, elevating the recognition of women in architecture and design.
On April 27, 2023, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced Yasmeen Lari as the recipient of the esteemed 2023 Royal Gold Medal. Her reaction expressed surprise and delight, emphasizing her dedication to focusing on marginalized communities and the urgent need for architects to address global challenges such as disparities, conflicts, and climate change. Yasmeen sees this honor as a call for architects to champion principles of circular economy, de-growth, transition design, eco urbanism, and Barefoot Social Architecture (BASA) for climate resilience, sustainability, and eco justice worldwide.