RIBA Royal Gold Medal awarded to Achitect and Humanitarian Yasmeen Lari

Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first qualified female architect, has been awarded this year’s Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects.She has been recognised for her humanitarian work since retiring, specifically for her efforts in building disaster-resistant homes for some of Pakistan’s most marginalised communities.

In 1980, Lari co-founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan with her husband, and after retiring from professional practice, she dedicated herself to the foundation’s mission. Utilising traditional materials such as mud, lime, and bamboo, Lari advocates for sustainable architecture that incorporates “ancient wisdoms and techniques.” The citation for the award reads, “Whilst recognising the importance of her role in practice, as a symbol of change in Pakistan, it is the work she has undertaken since her retirement in 2000 that the Royal Gold Medal celebrates.”

'The less money there is, the better you can perform because then you are actually able to make use of resources far better'
'When aid comes in, it does help but it’s really not sustainable. There is so much money coming into the country but it is not serving its purpose because the poverty levels are still very high.’

Quotes from Architects’ Journal Profile | Image Laura Pannack

After natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, aid agencies often resort to using expensive concrete or burnt brick structures as a go-to replacement for destroyed homes, believing that they are the only durable option. Lari calls this the “international colonial charity model,” where international NGOs and UN agencies bring in materials that are not native to the region, ignoring the importance of cultural context and traditional architectural practices.

The use of foreign materials can have significant issues. They are not immune to collapsing, and the heat-absorbing properties of concrete make it unsuitable for Pakistan’s scorching summers. Additionally, it is difficult for poorer villagers to maintain or expand settlements built with these materials, materials that are carbon intensive and worsen the greenhouse effect that is driving more catastrophic floods in the region.

Lari’s solution is to focus on local architectural traditions and design structures according to the specific conditions of the region. The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan is training villagers in Singh province to construct their own flood-resilient homes from cheap, locally available, and low-carbon materials such as bamboo panels reinforced with earth and lime, built on platforms.

With these skills, residents can expand their villages and train others, spreading the knowledge of sustainable, culturally appropriate, and resilient housing. The foundation has already helped build 3,500 homes in 60 villages, demonstrating the success of Lari’s approach. By promoting environmentally conscious and socially conscious architecture, Lari and the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan are paving the way for more resilient and sustainable housing for the most vulnerable communities.

Influential projects from the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

Pakistan Chulah Cookstove, Pakistan, 2014
Pakistan Chulah Cookstove, which runs on agricultural waste like cow dung or sawdust bricks, cuts the use of firewood by 50 to 70 per cent. The stove is made of locally-sourced mud and CO2-absorbing lime plaster and has a fire chamber, an air regulation pipe, a hand-washing area, a cooking utensil ledge, and a chimney to minimize smoke. The stove has a raised platform that makes it flood-resistant and costs only $8 to build. By the end of 2019, over 60,000 stoves had been built, which has reduced carbon pollution, deforestation, and the risk of domestic fires and serious respiratory or heart diseases.
Zero Carbon Cultural Centre, Pakistan, 2017
The Zero Carbon Cultural Centre is a community centre and social space to host workshops for locals in Maliki. It is made of bamboo, sourced from southern Pakistan, which is renewable and durable. It is the largest bamboo structure in Pakistan and measures 27 meters in length, 18 meters in width, and 11 meters in height. The thatched roof and open structure keep the space cool without air conditioning. The centre is used to teach locals how to make various products with local materials, including terracotta tiles, smokeless stoves made of mud and lime, and compostable toilets.
Islamic Arts Biennale pop-up mosques, Saudi Arabia, 2023
At the Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Yasmeen Lari showcased a trio of dismantlable mosques made entirely from bamboo to demonstrate the potential of the renewable and durable material as a structural element. The aim was to offer a more enjoyable place to pray than traditional concrete structures and showcase a potential future for architecture. The mosques were designed to avoid grand decorative gestures and emphasise sustainability.

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