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Yasmeen Lari

Yasmeen Lari

by Laila Kazmi

In addition to being one of Pakistan's most respected architects and an advocate for preservation of historical sites, Yasmeen Lari has the distinction of being Pakistan’s first woman architect. After retiring from a career in architecture which spanned over thirty-five years, these days she is devoting her time to writing and serving as an advisor to UNESCO project, Conservation and Preservation of Lahore Fort. She is also the executive director of Heritage Foundation and the Chairperson of Karavan Initiatives, both are organizations devoted to historic preservation.

Yasmeen Lari was born in the town of Dera Gazi Khan and spent her early years in and around Pakistan’s bustling city, Lahore. Her father was working on major development projects in Lahore and other cities. He realized the lack of qualified architects in Pakistan at the time. “He just said [to me] one day, ‘You know it would be good if you became an architect.’ Somehow that stuck with me,” recalls Yasmeen when describing her reasons for studying architecture. She was 15 years old when she first left Pakistan to go to London with her family. Initially there for a vacation, she and her siblings ended up enrolling in school in London. “I went for an interview to get admission to the School of Architecture and they [asked], ‘Well, can you draw, young lady? And I said ‘I couldn’t.’ So they [suggested], ‘You better go learn to draw first at an art school.” So that is what she did. Before she could enroll in an architecture school, Yasmeen studied art for two years London. After which she enrolled in an architecture school, obtaining her degree in architecture from the Oxford School of Architecture in London.

While still in school in London, Yasmeen was married to Suhail Zaheer Lari and about a year later gave birth to their first daughter. “My husband was very supportive,” she says. “Both my husband and I were studying so we [took] turns looking after the baby. My teachers were very nice. They said ‘You can bring the baby to the staff room and we’ll look after her.’ Oxford is a small place so it was very nice.”

After finishing school, Yasmeen and her husband returned to work in Pakistan “I never really felt that I wanted to work anywhere else,” Yasmeen remembers. In 1964, at the age of 23, Yasmeen Lari first setup her architecture practice in Karachi. “At that time there were probably only about a dozen qualified architects [in Pakistan],” says Yasmeen, with her being the only woman architect in the country. Though she faced some hardships starting out as a young woman architect in Pakistan, she acknowledges that having come from a privileged background was a help to her. “As you probably know, in this country if you come from a fairly comfortable background then you have a lot of advantages… So I don’t think I really struggled so much. I managed to start and get going. I was interested in research…so it was not [that I was] trying to do lots of projects. What was important was to be able to do different kinds of things.” She also says that having her family’s support was extremely important in starting out her career. “If you have a supportive family then that helps a lot. You don’t have to fight on a different front then. You don’t have to worry about people [at home] who don’t want you to work. That I think helped me a lot. My whole family, my husband’s family, everybody was very supportive.”

Regarding her first project as a professional architect, Yasmeen recalls [laughing], “My first project was a house for my brother. Who else would trust a new graduate?” Though Yasmeen really enjoyed designing the house, her main interest from the beginning has been in research and developing solutions for old towns and low-income housing. One of her early achievements includes the study of slums and squatter settlements of Karachi. “I just felt that the need in Pakistan was really, [for an] architect to be able to do something at that particular level because for most people that’s what was needed and somehow architects were not interested at that time in doing that kind of projects so I just started to go around the slums and looked at it and see what we could do.” Yasmeen Lari has always been intrigued with the historical buildings and towns. “When I walked through the streets of the old towns like [in] Multan or Lahore, I found them to be very interesting…. Basically, that’s where the interesting part of any Architect’s practice could be because there is a learning process in that and trying to see how can find solutions which would be practical and economical.” Besides designing a dozen or so private residences, Yasmeen’s work has comprised of projects for the low-income sector, as well as, large commercial projects. “This is what’s amazing about a country like ours. You just get to work at so many different levels. So I’ve done state of the art buildings, I’ve done low-income housing, mud housing, conservation, all kinds of things.”

PSO House, Karachi - Photo from Hecar Foundation

Finance and Trade Center, Karachi - Photo from
Hecar Foundation

Some of Yasmeen Lari's publications include: Slums and Squatter Settlements - Their Role and Improvement Strategy, Our Heritage in Muslim Architecture, Tharparkar and Sialkot after the War, 'Traditional Architecture of Thatta'. In 1997, Yasmeen Lari and her son, Mihail, published the book The Dual City: Karachi During the Raj, and in 2001, Yasmeen and Suhail published Karachi: Illustrated City Guide.

Describing her approach to design, whether it was for a house or a commercial office building, Yasmeen Lari says that her designs have usually been driven by the people who would be occupying the houses or buildings. When designing she says, "You really need to understand the people that you are doing it for. For instance, when I design for the corporate sector, I design not really for the company but I design for the people who might be using the building… allowing the people to be able to enjoy the building… For the low income groups, you have to understand their needs. If it is housing, I always talk to women because they are the ones who spend most of their time in these houses, we need to see where the children will play, if they need to grow something [in the garden] to supplement food for the kids. Also the outer spaces become very important like the sahan, the roof terrace where they can have the open sky. So you just think about it (the design) and sometimes its torture for several days and then you suddenly wake up and things fall into place… When you are in the design process, it is with you all the time. Whether you are sleeping or you are awake, doing something else, it's with you in your mind.”

Low-income housing, Karachi - Photo from Hecar Foundation

Though retired from architecture now, throughout her career when she designed a building or a house, Yasmeen’s job did not end at just developing the design. She was usually involved in every phase of the construction also. Being a woman, she perhaps faced more challenges from contractors with whom she had to work. “The contractors have always test me right from the first house that I did. For example, they always have a terrible ladder, kind of squeaky, which would look like it was going to collapse and they would test me to see if I would climb up all the way up. Even in multi-story buildings, they’d do the same thing. It was like a test I had to go through each time. You have to pass those tests to be able to earn the respect because it is very important that as an architect the instructions that [you have] given must be followed and complied with. I have had quite a bad reputation on the site because I did use to get lots of things demolished or pulled down which were not ok and they had to re-do [them]. In Pakistan another problem is that people are not very careful about quality of things. They would like to get away, if they can, without really doing things properly. So you just have to be very firm.”

Besides architecture, Yasmeen Lari has always had a keen interest in preserving cultural heritage. "Cultural heritage is our best kept secret in this country. No one seems to want to talk about it. Nobody seems to want to do very much about it. It’s a pity." Yasmeen is currently the director of Heritage Foundation which she explains, " is primarily a research organization and has developed an extensive archive which houses hundreds of historic maps, limited number of originals, but copies of maps wherever we could find them, thousands of photographs of historic urban architecture as well as historic monuments which are catalogued." In 1994, Heritage Foundation successfully lobbied to get a law passed which protects Sindh's historic buildings. "There are no incentives [from the government] for preservation of historic buildings. So there are problems because people can give money and get approval for demolitions." Later in 1997, as a result of Heritage Foundation's efforts, 600 of Karachi's buildings became legally protected under the 1994 law.

Heritage Foundation was the recipient of 2002 Recognition Award from the UN System in Pakistan for it's commitment to "documentation and conservation of heritage and environment of traditional and historical centers of Pakistan," as announced by the UN System in Pakistan.

Another one of Yasmeen Lari's achievements is the organization of Karavan Initiatives. "[Karavan Karachi] started by itself, actually," she says . After Yasmeen and her son published The Dual City: Karachi During the Raj which is a comprehensive book on origins of the various styles of architecture in Karachi and on the history of Sindh. The research for the book took seven years and it was followed by a guide book called the Karachi: Illustrated City Guide which is based on the more comprehensive book. "[After that] a lot of people came to me and said that we need to do something about the city. By that time I had retired from architecture. I said 'OK, let's start and I will give whatever support necessary.' Finally, it grew into something quite extra ordinary because so many people turned up to say that they wanted to do something about the city." So Karavan Karachi which started with the efforts of a lot of people is an attempt to celebrate the heritage of the city. "We started these Sunday street fests where we would just sit in front of a historic building and invite children to come and perform." The festivals gained a lot of media attention and became well known. The first Karavan Karachi festival was held in 2001. Politically, it was a time of uncertainties and as Yasmeen recalls, "People didn't really want to be on the streets because they were scared. When we did the festival there was not a single untoward incident. In Empress Market (at the first Karavan Karachi festival), there were something like 10,000 people there."

“If we want to bring about peace in our city, we want to have this kind of cohesion and integration, then we need to make cultural heritage our focus. We saw that happening in Kara chi.. The city transformed from being known as sort of a violent city to some place where people could congregate without any problem,” says Yasmeen Lari. The latest Karavan festival was called the 'Karavan Sea Parade' held earlier this year which she says was attended by over 50,000 people.

Though working for the preservation of historical buildings of Pakistan has been a challenge, Yasmeen Lari remains hopeful, “If you keep on doing even a little bit at a time it finally does help. In these last 20 years things have changed. People have become much more conscious.”

She believes that the most important influences on her work have been of the Egyptian architect Hasan Fathy and the internationally acclaimed architect Le Corbusier. Among the current female architects in Pakistan, Yasmeen believes that Sajida Vandal and Fauzia Qureshi, each running a joint practice with her husband, are “good architects who have several fine structures to their credit.”

Yasmeen Lari has three grown children. She lives in Karachi with her husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari. Her most recent publication is the Lahore Heritage Guide. Along with her husband, she has also been working on a two-volume publication on Lahore Fort and they hope to publish the first volume some time next year.

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