“What Will You Do For The Next 50 Years?”

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For over half a century, Yasmeen Lari spent every day of her life practicing architecture. That is, for over 50 years she was innovating design solutions for the slums. For over 50 years she was building sustainable homes in her community using local resources. And for over 50 years she was prioritizing the needs of her clients over her own. All the while, Yasmeen was working as the first female architect in Pakistan. Born in Dera Gazi Khan, a remote city in central Pakistan, Yasmeen Lari recognized that her country was less developed than others. Between the illiteracy, poverty, urban centers, and frequent natural disasters, she saw a need for change. And she found a way to make that change from her father. Yasmeen’s father worked as a developer in many large cities around Pakistan. While working, he found that there was a severe lack of qualified architects practicing in the country and said to his daughter, “You know it would be good if you became an architect.”

Evidently, this advice stuck with Yasmeen, who ended up interviewing for Architecture School in London after her family moved there. During the interview, the school asked if she could draw, to which she confessed, “No.” Consequently, she enrolled into art school. And two years later, she was accepted into the School of Architecture at Oxford Brook in London where she obtained her degree. In 1964, Yasmeen returned to her homeland of Pakistan where she setup her own architectural practice at the mere age of 23. Being the first female architect and a young designer, she encountered some difficulties starting off. For example, anytime she was on a job site, the contractors would ask her to climb to the top of ladders, no matter how unstable they looked. It was their way of testing her ability to comply and her way of gaining respect.

In spite of the few challenges she faced starting off, Yasmeen was still able to excel as a groundbreaking architect. She gained a wide range of projects from state-of-the-art corporate campuses to informal settlements and low-income housing. No matter who the client was though, she always made sure to incorporate something special in her work and consider the user of the space. For example, in low-income areas where high-rise, six-story walkups dominated, Yasmeen designed low-rise, high-density housing in order to improve the comfort of patrons. In rural areas, she would push for the use of vernacular techniques and local materials such as bamboo, adobe, and lime during construction. In apartment complexes and homes, she prioritized courtyards for women, where they could carry out chores, grow vegetables, keep chickens and keep an eye on their children. These considerations alone helped her to find success where her piers could not. And much of this success she attributes to being female; “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.”

This appreciation for and understanding of social minorities in her community continues to impact Yasmeen’s day-to-day activities, even post-retirement. She and her husband run the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which is a non-profit organization, that documents and safeguards 8,000-year-old architecture (and culture) in Pakistan. She also continues to practice architecture when and where it is most needed. For example, Yasmeen is devoted to disaster relief projects so when earthquakes in 2005 shook Pakistan, she hurried in to help. She developed low-cost bamboo shelters made of adobe and mud wall, which have a small carbon footprint and are suited to both urban and rural areas. Additionally, Yasmeen has contributed to building over 2,000 sustainable shelter units throughout Pakistan, in the hopes that she can demonstrate the essential but less-celebrated role that architecture can play in humanitarian aid. To this day, it can be seen that Yasmeen Lari is an inspiration as an architect, a humanitarian, an innovator, and as a woman. She took 50 years of her life and decided to do something that mattered with it.

– Paige

images: dwell.com, jazbah.org, newslinemagazine.com

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