Pakistan’s first female architect with an exceptionally illustrious career talks to MAG on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018

  • 03 Mar - 09 Mar, 2018
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Interview

Architecture happened by itself for this architect par excellence who, during her initial years as a professional, looked up to master architects such as Le Corbusier and Hassan Fathy. But she ultimately made her work stand out with her individuality and sense of design, as well as her compassion for the underprivileged. Yasmeen Lari, who happens to be the first female architect of Pakistan, is our lady of the moment – one who’s given a new sense of direction to a profession which not only serves the elite but also the poor. In this candid chat with MAG, Lari talks about her life, profession and the reason she chose to serve the needy after retiring from her otherwise successful career as one of the most sought after architects of the country.

“Good architecture is when you’ll be contributing to working for the poor because it’s really needed. One has to be a really good designer to make up for the deficits that exist in the poor areas. If you have a good sense of design then you can do more for the underprivileged, than you would otherwise,” says renowned architect Yasmeen Lari, who graduated from the Oxford School of Architecture (now Oxford Brookes University) and was elected as a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1969.

The then dainty young lady had no idea that she was the first of her kind in an otherwise male-dominated profession back in the days. “It was a fluke. After coming back, I found out that I was, in fact, the first female architect of the country. There was no desire or ambition to be one but life has very funny ways of dealing with things, and it turned out to be so,” she tells me. When asked what it was like to be a pioneer for Pakistani women in the profession? Yasmeen says, “When you find that you are in some way the first one, you carry a lot of responsibility on your shoulders because how you behave or what you do will possibly have an impact on those who follow you in the future. It’s very important that you hold on to your principles tight and don’t sway by all kinds of things that happen, as the way you conduct yourself and are seen by others matters a lot.”

Yasmeen calls herself fortunate to have had a supportive family both, before and after her marriage to her first cousin - a noted historian Suhail Zaheer Lari. “The fact that I went to study in England at a time when women were not encouraged enough to study or work, makes me a fortunate person. Perhaps, teaching and medicine were the only professions considered respectable for women. But my parents were very progressive, which is why I did my O and A-levels there and later joined the school of architecture. After some time, I got married and then had our daughter. Both, my husband and I were studying, so we learnt to take care of her together. Everybody, from my parents to my husband and in-laws were really supportive throughout,” says Yasmeen, further adding that she was one of the very few women who had that privilege.

Was it easy or difficult for her to work in an occupation dominated by men, I ask. “People were not willing to take me seriously in the beginning; maybe it was because I was young. They would dare me when working as an architect, so I would take the challenge. There were issues at times and men did take offence. Sometimes, they didn’t like me going ahead. I fought for establishing the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners, which brought a lot of ill will for me because everybody who was not an architect was now threatened,” she responds.

Yasmeen worked as an architect for years and finally retired in 2000, after which she planned to write books following her husband’s footsteps, but destiny wanted her to serve those in need. “I gave up practice in 2000 and started writing books. But then UNESCO requested me to help in the conservation of Sheesh Mahal in Lahore, and while I was finishing the project in 2005, Pakistan was hit by a deadly earthquake, after which I went to the affected areas,” she shares about her work after the tragic earthquake shook our nation.

When asked if it was too soon for her to retire, she says, “I think a time comes in one’s life when you must change track. I would have made some more buildings for rich people and may have received more fame. But I was able to do much more that I could not have done if I remained practicing architecture.”

Currently, Yasmeen is heading the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which she co-founded with her husband in 1980 in a bid to undertake research and safeguard Pakistan’s cultural heritage. Her work includes conservation of several historic monuments in the list of World Heritage Sites in Pakistan, wherein most notable of her work is the conservation of Makli and Lahore Fort. Her latest efforts include the 10,000 Green Shelters program, aimed at providing gifts of prefab bamboo shelters (Lari Octa Green) and eco-toilets, along with water pumps to poor communities, and is proud to have created a stove to help rural women cook in healthy and hygienic conditions.

The inimitable architect isn’t glad with the current state of modern infrastructure in Karachi and Lahore. “There’s nothing wrong with building contemporary structures, every city needs them, but there’s no need to destroy one’s heritage in the process. In the pursuit of wealth and moneymaking people are not bothered about collective good, which is disturbing,” she makes it known. But Yasmeen doesn’t fear those in power and aims to work towards preserving heritage for future generations to come. “There is a very powerful lobby that I am fighting against. But I feel that if you’re doing something that you believe in, you just have to take that risk,” she says with determination.

Yasmeen has a piece of advice for women who aspire to become architects. “Women who study architecture should pursue the profession even after they get married and find a way to be productive.”

Take note, young women!