Disaster risk reduction centre being built. (Pictures courtesy of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)
Recipient of the Fukuoka prizes, which included A.R Rahman (second from right) and Yasmeen Lari (third from right).
Pakistan’s first female architect talks to Subhadra Devan about

HOUSES made of clay soil, lime and bamboo stand the test of floods and earthquakes in some parts of Pakistan, easing the burdens of disaster-struck people.

“Architects can also come up with solutions to disaster-preparedness in buildings,” says Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect, whose non-engineered design is helping the millions of people hit by climate disasters in her home country.

The woman behind concrete-and-steel monoliths in Karachi, including the 1981 Regent Plaza Hotel & Exhibition Centre (then called Taj Mahal Hotel), says she was always intrigued by the historical monuments and old houses in the towns of Pakistan.

HERITAGE LESSONS

“It’s in the historical and heritage buildings that we learn about our past. The heritage buildings were not just done by the colonials but also by our artisans and the workers. The buildings express a fusion of the colonial and the vernacular,” continues Yasmeen.

She adds that we all should be proud of the heritage buildings because they hold a lot of innovative ideas. “Heritage shows what we have gone through. How the city developed, what went on. You can’t get rid of them and say you’ve rid yourself of your past,” she says.

But, she laments, conservation of heritage buildings isn’t taken seriously enough all over the world.

“That’s probably because architects are taught to be star architects, to build iconic structures. Not many are in disaster-resistant architecture,” says the 74-year-old, whose efforts are now in zero-carbon-footprint construction, using lime, bamboo and mud.

She adds: “I finally left private practice (in 2000) to work on projects close to my heart — sustainable and vernacular disaster relief housing and the non-profit Heritage Foundation of Pakistan.”

She co-founded the foundation with her husband, historian Suhail Zaheer Lari.

In 2002, she received the UN Recognition Award for the promotion of culture and peace. In 2006, in recognition of her services to the architectural profession and heritage conservation, she was awarded Sitara-e-Imtiaz (The Star Of Distinction) and in 2014, the Hilal-i-Imtiaz (The Crescent Of Distinction) award by the Government of Pakistan.

DISASTER-RESISTANT STRUCTURES

In March, Yasmeen was in Britain for the exhibition, Creation From Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities, at the Royal Institute Of British Architects. The exhibition examines how architects have re-invented communities and cities after disasters, — from the Great Fire Of London in 1666 to last year’s earthquake in Nepal.

“As I said in London, everybody should think of disaster preparedness given the climate changes. Mud, bamboo, lime. mix lime with mud and it’s very strong. It can withstand flash floods, earthquakes. I’ve built 45,000 structures since 2010. It floods every year in the Sindh area, but 2010 was the worst,” she recalls.

She revisited the area in 2013, and the houses were still standing and in livable condition. They can also double up as storage depots or women’s centres when not needed as a refuge. In addition, they come with improvised sanitation methods called aquatic toilets.

The pillars of the houses are made from bamboo, the walls from a mixture of mud, lime and other local material while the roof is a bamboo purlin.

According to the Heritage Foundation Of Pakistan website, this “Karavan roof” is made of bamboo that can last 25 years, covered with straw matting, a layer of tarpaulin and pozzolana, a waterproofing material.

“But we (with the heritage foundation) teach household women, children as well as artisans how to make the structures. In fact, the villagers also have one earthquake-proof room,” says Yasmeen who also works with student volunteers and artisans through training, and the creation of the Mobile Barefoot Karavan Teams, all under the heritage foundation, to help the affected communities.

For example, the communities attend training workshops held by the mobile teams to learn how to tie the Karavan six-bamboo joists to the ring beam and to anchor of walls to both base and roof. Once the bases are strengthened, walls repaired with infill and Kararvan Roofs secured, the people are urged to test their new and improved housing unit, by putting 15 people on the roof.

LOW-COST SOLUTIONS

Discouraging the use of cement, steel and burnt bricks, as the production of these contribute to global warming, Yasmeen says: “There’s no need for the tents and the handouts. The people can learn to do this (build their houses) themselves and they have.”

She’s also looking at starting a television channel to disseminate such disaster-resistant designs which are low-cost solutions in architecture.

“The high-cost solution isn’t working, so why not low-cost? All of us work for that one per cent in the world; architects too. I’m not saying don’t work for the one per cent, but also think of the 99 per cent. Find solutions others can’t, focus on the heritage methodology, learn from tradition. I learnt the use of lime from the old monuments in the country,” she says.

Fresh from receiving the Fukuoka Arts And Culture prize at the Japanese city last month, she says: “If you want to deal with disasters, you have to prepare for them (the villagers) and work with zero carbon and zero cost.

“Disasters will continue as the planet continues to change. So what the Fukuoka Prize has done for me is to spread my message further.”

Yasmeen also took time during her visit to Fukuoka, in the island of Kyushu, to talk about her work to youths at the Fukuoka Girls’ High School and the public at the Acros Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall in the city.

Along with Yasmeen, India’s A.R. Rahman was awarded the Fukuoka Grand Prize, while historian and writer Dr Ambeth R Ocampo from the Philippines won the Academic Prize.

The Fukuoka Prize was established in 1990 by the city and the Yokatopia Foundation (formerly the Fukuoka City International Foundation) to honour outstanding achievements by individuals, groups or organisations in preserving and creating the unique and diverse cultures of Asia.

Yasmeen’s houses show how architecture can play a role in humanitarian aid and the fact that it’s also sustainable green construction.

She says: “What I have designed is zero carbon and zero cost, to help the poor and those in disaster-hit areas. It’s my effort to bring out-of-the-box solutions to the table.”

Details at www.heritagefoundationpak.org