Yasmeen Lari Wins the Royal Gold Medal

John Hill
28. 四月 2023
Zero Carbon Women Centre on Bamboo Stilts, Moak Sharif, Tando Allahyar, Sindh, 2011 (Photo © Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)

The arc of Lari's long career is atypical and now, with all of the attention given to her work in recent years, fairly well known. Born in 1941 in Pakistan, Lari moved with her family to London at the age of 15, spending nearly a decade there and earning a degree from the School of Architecture at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University). At 23, she returned to Pakistan with her husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari, and set up her eponymous practice, in which she became notably the first registered female architect in Pakistan. 

Pakistan State Oil (PSO House), Head Office, Karachi, 1984 (Photo © Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)

Following decades designing office buildings and other projects in modern materials and style, Lari “retired” in 2000. Although she intended to do just that, instead she pivoted to a focus on humanitarian causes and carbon-free/zero-waste construction. Her shift from glass, steel, and concrete to bamboo, mud, and other local materials, in response to natural disasters and the overlooked needs of women and children, among other considerations, is what has garnered her RIBA's highest honor.

Zero Carbon Cultural Centre (ZC3), Makli, Sindh, 2017 (Photo © Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)
"In the last twenty-three years Lari and The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which she founded with her husband, has reacted imaginatively and creatively to the physical and psychological damage that a number of major natural disasters; earthquakes, floods and conflicts have inflicted on the people of Pakistan. Her work is distinguished by the fact that it has focused on developing robust, intelligent yet simple, architectural designs that allow those who are in distress to build for their own needs using the available debris of disaster. This is a very different, but also very relevant, model of re-use and reinvention that engages and empowers."

Official citation on Yasmeen Lari by the 2023 RIBA Honors Committee (excerpt)

Mud Brick One Room House, Moak Sharif, Tando Allahyar, Sindh, 2011 (Photo © Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)

Of the accolades and attention given to Lari this decade — from the 2020 Jane Drew Prize, for example, and the major monographic show now on display at AzW — the Royal Gold Medal is just the latest. While they tend to focus on her efforts this century, Lari's humanitarian roots go back farther in time. In 1975 she completed social housing in Lahore; in 1980 she and her husband founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan; that same year she designed a slum redevelopment program for Karachi (it remained unbuilt); and shortly after she designed and built barracks for the Pakistani Army — out of mud, a controversial choice at the time.

Yasmeen Lari (Photo © Anam Baig)

In other words, Lari did not make a simple 180-degree turn from modern to traditional, rich to poor, large-scale to small-scale. The humanitarian efforts that were previously overshadowed by buildings designed for corporate clients found a way to rise to the top, first by helping the victims of the 2005 earthquake, and since then by directing her knowledge and untiring efforts to aiding those in need in her home country and setting an example for architects around the world on how to build truly sustainable architecture. As summarized by the RIBA Royal Gold Medal citation: “It is Lari’s focus on architecture as a complete and vital social, cultural, economic and aesthetic model, as well as her mantra of ‘low cost, zero carbon, zero waste’ that makes her hugely relevant to all who practice today.”