For the People, By the People – Glass talks to Yasmeen Lari Pakistan’s first female architect about how disaster-affected communities can rise above adversity through sustainable vernacular construction
YASMEEN Lari is one of the most precious, understated gems of the architecture field today. It’s not so much that she’s a well-kept secret – she’s known internationally as Pakistan’s first female architect, has served as UNESCO’s National Advisor and has been decorated with prizes and distinctions that celebrate her work. But rather that Lari is very much present, very much active but also very much withdrawn from the architectural discourse of the present. So much, in fact, that during our conversation Glass finds ourself increasingly confused when she repeatedly states that she’s retired and no longer practises architecture. Knowing full well of the massive and continued efforts of her organisation, the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which among other things builds sustainable homes for disaster-affected communities, I know that this can’t possibly be true. Yet Lari, as dulcet as she is headstrong, insists on her retirement.
Founded in 1980, the Heritage Foundation has two main branches: the first deals with heritage and conservation management, while the second, prompted by the 2005 Great Earthquake in the Mansehra district of Pakistan, focuses on their humanitarian cause – to design and build shelters, involving the community in the process. In my uncertainty, I quickly ask her if she can clarify who designs the shelters the organisation helps fund. “Well mostly I’m the designer, I take great pride in that,” Lari responds. I insist that this by default is still ‘architecture’, she matter-of-factually corrects me, “But you can’t really it call it that. I call it ‘barefoot architecture’ or ‘non-architecture’. ‘Architecture’ is commonly something quite different.”
Lari, who received her architectural training in the UK in the 1960s, upholds that what the majority of people would describe as architecture are the works by the world-renowned firms who create iconic buildings and spaces. “What I’m doing is taking inspiration from the vernacular and refashioning it. But because the users take, work and innovate on it, it’s not really mine any more.
It’s something they have created by drawing on their own culture. It’s amazing that not one of my shelters is the same as the other because each family decorates them so differently, so how can I call it my own?” But as much as I appreciate her humility and desire to separate both modes of building, valuing each one for what it is, I respectfully disagree: her work, far from grandiose in terms of its iconicity, is as close to architecture’s raison d’être as it can possibly be.
You’re most recognised for your efforts with disaster relief architecture, but also because you’re Pakistan’s first female architect. I want to start with that. Did you look up to anyone when you were starting out?Very interesting question. I have two ‘gurus’, and one of them is Marcus Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architect who lived in 2 BC, for his extensive use of lime as a building material. The other one is a great Egyptian artist, Hassan Fathy, who built with sun-dried brick back in the ’30s and ’40s. Their work was influential, but of course I had to find my own way of doing things.
What difficulties did you face being a female architect, not just in an office, but also out in a Pakistani construction site?
I started working when I was very young. People didn’t think I would have the courage to do very much, and I had to prove that I could do everything that a young man could do. The contractors often played games, like putting up a ladder that could collapse at any time – a rickety type of kind of thing – for me to go up to the roof during the construction of houses. They would test me to see if I would go up. But when I passed the ‘test’ and I was fine, I was accepted.
Do you think those challenges and difficulties came with being the first female architect in a country or just being an architect in general?
Of course in the beginning it was very unusual for people to see a female architect, and I think that maybe brought a little bit of concern about my being able to do things; people were untrusting of me and my abilities. But, you know, I think this happens to most people when they’re starting off in a profession. I don’t know that I had a particularly difficult time more so than anyone else. Actually, I’d say that female architects in the West might have had an even more difficult time than me.
When I compare some Western women in this field who are my age and younger, they’ve had much more horrible problems in getting ahead in their profession. I think a lot of the difficulties I dealt with had to do with being a young architect. They don’t take young people very seriously in Pakistan. However, I also have to say that this wasn’t an all-encompassing situation; in many ways Pakistan has shown me a lot of courtesy because of my gender, and it’s been full of opportunities for me.
You’ve previously said that when you went back to Pakistan after being trained in the UK, there was a period of unlearning as you tried to relate to the reality of the country. Was that because of the economic differences between Pakistan and the UK? What was that process of unlearning like?
I was trained in the West at a very young age, and even in Pakistan – before I’d left to England – I was very sheltered. This is the whole problem with people who are privileged: they don’t see anything around them because they are cocooned in their own geographic realities. I never really experienced my country, I never really explored its historic towns. I wasn’t even allowed to go!
When I started studying, I was introduced to a lot of fancy terms and was told how I was supposed to build – under Western architectural philosophy of the time, of course. When I came back to Pakistan I realised that the economic and cultural differences were enormous. So along with my husband I began going around different towns and historic cities in Pakistan, and saw a different kind of imagery. Everything that you see is just entirely different. It taught me several things: how to put these buildings together, to have open terraces at every level, how narrow streets provide interaction for people, how to deal with traffic, among other things. Historic cities in Pakistan taught me how to rethink my way of dealing with architecture.
Did it take a long time to reformat your way of thinking or was it something that came rather naturally?
I think I was just fascinated when I went to these places because I’d never experienced anything like it before. It was amazing to see how wonderful and beautiful these places were; their decorative features alone were absolutely phenomenal. Because my father had been an Indian civil servant, we lived in a huge compound separated from the multitude. Suddenly going into these areas where everybody lives in absolute close proximity, with so much interaction, opened my eyes completely.
As a result of that, now your work is centred around providing social justice and grounds for an equitable society.
Yes, I really believe that most of us architects have been trained to build for the 1 per cent; they’re the ones who can commission you – they’re the elite, the people that have everything, entirely privileged. Architects are taught that they’re the ones we have to work for. But the fact is that 99 per cent or more of the population actually can’t commission you, and they’re the ones that really need the most help. It’s really important to devote attention to those people and give them a better quality of life. Economic justice is very much related to social justice.
When working for disadvantaged populations requires design that is very different from mainstream design. What can we learn from these communities about sustainable modes of living and designing?
Today we know what’s happening with global warming, and a lot of it is coming from the way we construct buildings. We have to change the way we think about construction. Using sun-dried mud, lime and clay in my projects means that the buildings produce zero carbon emissions. Similarly, I use bamboo which is an entirely renewable material – it doesn’t do any damage at all, and within two years you get a new crop. This, in turn, helps us to stop using wood. That’s the way we need to build, in a manner that produces less carbon emissions. I think it’s doable, and it’s what my work seeks to do with the population I work with. We teach people how to build by using very sustainable materials: mud, lime, bamboo, among others.
There’s an enormous amount of resistance to this, though.
Every time there’s a disaster, a huge amount of construction has to ensue afterwards. In 2005, after the earthquake, Pakistan needed to build around 400,000 dwellings; that’s an enormous amount of construction! At that time, cement was being promoted, so even though I kept working with mud and stone, the government would not listen. There was a huge amount of carbon emissions during that period. And that’s a problem. We have to change the way people think now.
There’s also a general idea that people with limited resources are excluded from the design discourse.
Design is extremely important; if there is deficit, we need more design, not less. If people are living in disadvantaged environments, then they need more help. Architects need to help people develop their own design capabilities. I often say that I feel like I’m a facilitator providing a canvas on which people can use their own creativity, so they make something out of it. I want to give people something they can then work on themselves, so it lifts them from a state of apathy. This way, they become proud of what they have done. Architects, in a way, have to suppress their egos and build for them.
I agree. Architecture likes to think of itself as a noble field intended to help. But a lot of it has to do with politics and money. Do you call architects on their bluff, seeing as to how few firms are involved in disaster relief efforts?
That’s a great critique, and I see this all the time. We have many consultants who come from outside – they’re not necessarily architects – but they come in and talk in grandiose terms about what needs to be done in terms of the disaster-affected populus. The fact is that we need more architects because they can relate better to what people need. I think they’re more sensitive to it and they can deliver much better results, but they’re not there! They’re non-existent.
Why do you think that is?
Big firms think that there’s not much money in disaster relief, but I see so much money being dedicated to this cause. Why should people be displaced? Why should they be thrown out to go live in tents? When we can help them, and at the very least we can make sure they’re safe. I think architects are needed to come and discuss all this, and they must play a role in it.
Talk to me about what it’s like to work with families who are traumatised. How do you, through your work, help to not only give them shelter but also give them a life back?
People should not feel like they’re being given handouts. I think it’s very important that their dignity be maintained. Although these people have lost everything, they haven’t lost their capabilities. However, a lot of times they’re treated as victims by those who assume everything needs to be done for them, and that’s a very wrong attitude. What they need to do is be uplifted, to be reminded that they’re still capable of doing things! That’s the reason why I think that this whole business about buildings with steel-structure reinforcement, for instance, is totally inappropriate; these processes and building methods don’t allow the people who are affected to do any of the work themselves; they need somebody else to come do it for them.
Disaster-affected citizens must play a part in the process, they should participate. The more we can get them to be involved, the easier it is for them to rise above adversity. Most of the time they’re treated as silent, but they’re the ones who are the best workers. The women I work with are amazing! The kind of creativity they display is unbelievable, so we need to encourage them to continue being productive.
That’s a good point, and I know that you have a particular interest in helping women. Could you tell me about your work towards women’s economic empowerment?
If given the opportunity, women are really willing to come forward and take charge of things. One of our priorities is to teach women how to start earning money, to become entrepreneurs. For instance, one of the things we did at the Heritage Foundation was to design a twin burner, fuel-efficient stove with an attached chimney that allows smoke to leave the house.
We have a group of women who are trained stove-makers in each village, and they, as a local business, teach others how to make these same stoves. We also have women who have learnt how to make bricks out of mud, so in this way we’re sharing better construction techniques that speak of the local vernacular while also being sustainable, not just in terms of the environment but economically as well.
You often speak of giving people back their pride. A few years ago we did an issue in which we tried to flip the notion that pride is a social evil and a deadly sin. How does fostering a sense of pride for your clients actually act as their saving grace?
In situations of adversity, tradition and cultural knowledge are of great importance. When it comes to disaster-affected clients, unfortunately, a lot of the people who want to help them go in with an “I know better” mentality. They try to change the way those people think, especially in terms of shelter, imposing things on them. But these are totally alien forms, they have nothing to do with the inhabitants’ culture, nothing to do with their tradition.
The more we tell them, “What you did was right, but we just have to make sure you build it strong enough so that you’ll be safe”, the more they’ll be able to relate to what we’re proposing and take part in the construction process. Then suddenly it becomes their own. They’ve made it themselves, and in that sense of ownership comes a sense of pride. The architect’s job is not to design for them, but to give them a blank canvas that’ll allow their creativity to unfold, innovating on what you’ve done. That’s how pride develops. As an architect you really can’t have an ego. My ego is zero now.
I’m glad you brought that up. I know you’ve previously said that dealing with communities that have been through adversity requires a great deal of humility, and that prima donna attitudes won’t do – something which is so frequent in the design field! How has working with these communities changed you?
I had the biggest ego you could think of! I just thought I had all the answers, I thought I knew what to do. But the more I worked with different communities from different places in Pakistan – people who I would have never thought to sit with – it changed me. Here I was, sitting on the streets next to them, enjoying it! That’s how my ego started to disappear, because I suddenly realised thousands of people understood the value of cultural heritage: it’s just that no one had bothered to talk to them. And it’s them who’ve taught me so much.
by Regner Ramos
From the Glass Magazine – Issue 28 – Equality