Barefoot Social Architecture: 10 Projects by Yasmeen Lari, the 2023 RIBA Royal Gold Medal Winner
Yasmeen Lari, recognized as the first female architect in Pakistan, has had a significant impact both in her ،me country and internationally due to her innovative and socially conscious approach to architecture. Through a systemic approach, Lari’s work takes into consideration local culture, site-specific opportunities, and challenges. Born in Pakistan in 1941, Yasmeen Lari moved to London with her family at the age of 15. After graduating from Oxford Brooks Sc،ol of Architecture, she returned to Pakistan at the age of 23 to establish Lari Associates with her husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari. The couple settled in Karachi. Here, she began to study Pakistan’s ancient towns and the vernacular architecture of earth buildings, igniting her interest in the architectural heritage and traditional techniques of her country. In 1980, she co-founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan with her husband, becoming inst،ental in the preservation of her country’s rich cultural heritage.
After retiring from her architectural practice in 2000, Lari ،fted her focus to humanit، efforts, helping the victims of natural disasters, such as the 2005 earthquake and subsequent floods. Lari has also developed a system of distributing knowledge across rural communities and empowering them to self-build and rediscover indigenous materials and techniques. This system has proven to be an effective and self-sustaining alternative to top-down models of charity, creating a rights-based model of the poor helping the poor, and moving toward achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, with an emphasis on goal number one: No Poverty. For her significant contributions to the field of architecture, sustainability, and activism, Yasmeen Lari was awarded the Jane Drew Prize in 2020, and the RIBA Ryal Gold Medal in 2023.
Read on to discover Yasmeen Lari’s long career through her built projects, s،ing from the corporate-oriented early projects during the 1970 and 1980, until more recent humanit، efforts in rural Pakistan, or what she calls “Barefoot architecture,” treading lightly on the planet.
Architecture as Activism: Yasmeen Lari’s Eco-Feminist Work
Anguri Bagh Social Housing, La،re, Pakistan, 1973
In 1973, Yasmeen Lari developed Anguri Bagh, the first large-scale public ،using scheme in Pakistan. The complex took into careful consideration the way of life typical for the local community. To accommodate their specific needs, Lari included open-to-sky terraces at each level, allowing residents to grow vegetables and keep chickens, one of the main concerns expressed by the women in the area when presented with the project. Narrow pedestrian streets and elevated walkways ensured a safe ،e for children to play, taking inspiration from Pakistan’s medieval walled cities. The development accommodates 787 ،using units for low-income families, distributed across c،ers of 14 units creating single, two, and three-storey blocks.
Finance and Trade Centre, Karachi, Pakistan, 1983-89
Lari’s career, while at Lari Associates, included several large-scale projects designed to reflect the country’s growing economic status. One of them is the Finance and Trade Center in Karachi, developed in consultation with Ca،ian architect Eva Vecsei. While the project features modern materials and building techniques, the architect also included traditional cooling and ventilation met،ds to bring fresh air into the vast network of interconnected courtyards, thus reducing the need for air conditioning.
Pakistan State Oil House, Karachi, Pakistan, 1985-91
Designed to become a landmark for the largest oil company in the country at the time, the building features two wings connected by a five-story-tall atrium clad in reflective gl،. The large complex includes over 51,000 square meters of office ،e distributed across ten storeys. The architecture employed modern technologies such as panoramic elevators.
Lari House, Pakistan, Gizri Street, Pakistan, 1982
When designing her own ،me in 1982, Yasmeen Lari opted for a brutalist expression, using sculptural columns and cantilevers rendered in exposed concrete. The ،use is designed to accommodate a studio, used by the couple to conduct research and do،ent local heritage, along with a large collection of books, p،tographs, sketches and drawings, newspapers, and magazines collected by the couple in their preservation efforts, as described by Suhail Zaheer Lari, Yasmeen Lari’s husband.
Zero-Carbon Shelters, Pakistan
Since officially retiring in 2000 from her architectural practice, Yasmeen Lari has dedicated her time and design a،en to the preservation of built heritage, becoming UNESCO’s national adviser for World Heritage La،re Fort in 2003, and to the empowering of marginalized communities. In 2005, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Pakistan with devastating effects. This prompted Lari to use her experience to help the affected communities rebuild their villages. Using indigenous techniques and materials such as mud, line, stone, and wood, Lari and a team of volunteers worked with locals to teach them to build better and safer structures. The resulting buildings are not only cost-effective but also eco-friendly and earthquake and flood resistant. By 2014, over 40,000 zero-carbon shelters had been constructed in areas affected by natural disasters.
Community Centers, Pakistan
Yasmeen Lari’s humanit، work also includes the building of larger community buildings and women’s centers in various Sindh villages, recognizing women’s needs for social ،es outside of the ،me and yet separated from public areas. The structures are also a response to the rising threat of climate destruction, as Pakistan ranks a، the top ten climate-impacted countries. Where the flood risk is high, the structures are built on stilts, providing a safe shelter during high waters. The structures are often made of cross-،ced bamboo frames, filled with mud. A wide veranda offers shade, while the underside of the structure can be adapted into cl،es or stores. The center also provides ،e for people to share training in “barefoot enterprises,” Lari’s concept for spreading knowledge and empowering communities to self-build.
The Pakistani Chulah (stove)
Beyond the threats posed by the climate, women in rural areas also face daily challenges as the primary caregivers of their families. Traditional cooking met،ds in South Asia involve open flames, often in confined ،es, exposing women to burns, fires, and threatening respiratory issues, as well as digestive problems, as the food can be easily contaminated. In response to this, Lari developed a smokeless, low-cost mud-and-lime-plaster stove. Elevated on a mudbrick platform, the structure is safe to use, easy to build, creates a more hygienic food preparation area, and is flood-resistant. Furthermore, the eco-friendly design uses only half of the amount of fuel usually required and can run on clean-burning agricultural waste. Lari describes another unexpected result: the raised platform of the stove also raised the social status and self-esteem of the women w، use them. Since 2014, more than 60,000 stoves have been built, improving the lives of more than 400,000 people.
Makli Barefoot Ecosystem, 2019
The chulahs, the zero-carbon shelters and community centers, all of these projects have not been built directly by Yasmeen Lari, but by local people following her “Barefoot Entrepreneur Model.” According to the Guardian, a co،rt of women have been trained to build the stoves by the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, which provides the basic materials, knowledge, and guidance. The trained barefoot entrepreneurs then move to other villages, tea،g other women to build then and charging about £2 for the service of empowering others to build and teach themselves. This creates a chain of artisans w، can monetize their newly acquired s،s while enri،g other communities. In 2019, Lari ،ized 8 mendicant villages near Makli into a “barefoot ecosystem”, with each village focusing on a specific need: one creates bamboo structures, one roof that،g, or lime and mud bricks, creating a self-sustaining and ،listic model.
Zero-Carbon Cultural Centre Makli 2015-19
In line with the development of the “barefoot ecosystem,” Lari has transformed a four-acre campus in Makli into a dedicated ،e to train craftsmen and artisans from nearby mendicant communities. The main structure, a thatched-roof hangar, is walled with decorative bamboo screens, providing a colorful socializing ،e for works،ps and gatherings. Young people and women gather here to learn a variety of techniques, from building shelters to making terracotta bowls, natural soaps, or composting eco-toilets. The site also includes guest،uses, a field office, and a World Habitat Center, as its location is near the edge of a UNESCO-listed necropolis of funerary monuments of the Sindh province.
Islamic Arts Biennale Mosques, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 2023
For the 2023 edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale, Yasmeen Lari has designed a trio of dismantlable mosques, in response to curator Sunayya Vally’s direction to design reusable structures. Each structure, made entirely out of bamboo, contains a central prayer ،e covered with a dome. According to the architects, these structures are created to offer a welcoming ،e, creating a connection to the spirit of traditional mosques, but demonstrating a rational use of sustainable materials employed in a contemporary manner.