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Photo: Heritage Foundation of Pakistan.
Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari says she wants to atone for past contributions to the world of excess by starting to build good homes for the poor.

A woman in a “man’s profession” wanted to prove she was just as good or better, outdoing other architects in creating over-the-top corporate buildings. Now she wants to be more true to herself and contribute to society.

Oliver Wainwright reports at the Guardian, “A mirrored glass ziggurat stands on a corner in central Karachi, flanked by a pair of polished granite towers. Golden bubble elevators glide up and down behind the tinted windows, shuttling oil executives to their offices through the sparkling five-storey atrium. The Pakistan State Oil House is a power-dressed monument to the petroleum-fuelled excesses of the early 1990s, oozing ostentation from every gilded surface – so it comes as a surprise to learn that its architect is now building mud huts for the poor.

‘I feel like I am atoning for some of what I did,’ says Yasmeen Lari with an embarrassed chuckle. ‘I was a “starchitect” for 36 years, but then my egotistical journey had to come to an end. It’s not only the right of the elite to have good design.’

“The 79-year-old architect was awarded the prestigious Jane Drew prize in London in March, a gong that recognises women’s contribution to architecture, for her tireless humanitarian work over the last two decades. …

“She made her name with a number of prestigious state commissions in the 1980s, including Karachi’s finance and trade centre, a vast hotel and a host of military barracks, as well as a low-income housing project that favoured low-rise high-density over the fashion for concrete-slab blocks. Then, in 2000, she retired, primarily to focus on writing books about Pakistan’s architectural history and put her energies into the Heritage Foundation, which she had founded with her husband in 1980. …

“In 2005, an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude on the Richter scale hit northern Pakistan, killing 80,000 people and leaving 400,000 families displaced. ‘I felt I had to go and help,’ says Lari. ‘I had no idea what I could do as an architect. I’d never done any disaster work, or any projects in the mountains. I had no workforce, I’d given up my practice. But I found that, if you do something beyond your usual comfort zone, then help will always come.’

While international aid agencies busied themselves erecting costly prefab housing with concrete and galvanised iron sheets, Lari worked with dispossessed families to rebuild their homes using mud, stone, lime and wood from the surrounding debris. Working with volunteers, she trained local people how to use whatever materials were to hand to rebuild in a better, safer way.

” ‘I think we often misunderstand what kind of help is needed,’ she says. ‘As an outsider, you do things that you think are appropriate, but the reality here is different. The aid mindset is to think of everyone as helpless victims who need things done for them, but we have to help people to do things for themselves. There’s so much that can be done with what’s already there, using 10 times less money.’

“She says that the process of co-creation can also be a crucial part of healing. ‘Disasters can be truly devastating and people easily fall into deep depression. But if you give them something to do, it really helps with recovery. Something people have helped to make is much more valued than something simply given.’

“Since 2005, a sequence of further earthquakes, floods and conflicts have kept Lari and her team at the Heritage Foundation on their toes, developing agile techniques with bamboo, mud and lime, always following the principles of low cost, zero carbon and zero waste. Severe flooding in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces in 2010 saw them develop a design for modular community centres raised on stilts, which safely survived more floods a couple of years later.

“When earthquakes hit Balochistan province in 2013 and Shangla in 2015, Lari designed shelters using a cross-braced bamboo framework, learned from the vernacular dhijji technique. Testing the prototype on a shaking table at NED University in Karachi, they found the structure was capable of withstanding an earthquake more than six times the strength of the 1995 Kobe disaster. If the homes ever did begin to crumble, they could be easily rebuilt using the same organic materials – unlike their concrete and steel counterparts.

“ ‘There’s so much money in disaster relief,’ says Lari, ‘but we need to put much more effort into disaster preparedness.’ She is critical of the ‘universal solutions’ offered by aid agencies and the siloed ways in which they work, as well as the urbanised mindset imposed on rural communities, insisting instead that responses should follow ‘forms based on age-old wisdom.’ “

More at the Guardian, here.

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