Yasmeen Lari

Architecture for the Future

Woman with veil stands on a wooden ladder, a man hands her a bowl

Self-built, zero carbon, and flood-resistant houses, Sindh Province, Pakistan; tens of thousands have already been implemented.
© photograph: Archive Yasmeen Lari

What answers does architecture provide to the climate crisis? With the world’s first monographic exhibition on Yasmeen Lari, the Az W shows an exemplary position that evidences an architecture for the future. As Pakistan’s first female architect, Yasmeen Lari (*1941) designed iconic modernist buildings before initiating a zero-carbon self-build movement for climate refugees and the landless.

The exhibition Yasmeen Lari. Architecture for the Future highlights Yasmeen Lari’s extraordinary work for the first time, from the modernist beginnings of the 1960s, through her time as a star architect, to current humanitarian architecture based on decolonization and decarbonization. Today, Lari practices architecture as climate activism to uphold the rights of people and nature alike.

Using previously unpublished photos, drawings, and documents, the three curators Angelika Fitz, Elke Krasny, and Marvi Mazhar convey the architect’s impressive career from international modernism to zero-carbon architecture. Born in 1941 in what is today Pakistan, still under British rule back then, Lari received her architectural training in England. In 1964, she was the first woman to open an architecture office in Pakistan. She designed Pakistan’s first social housing complex in Lahore and landmark buildings such as the Pakistan State Oil headquarters in Karachi. Her own house, an icon of Brutalism, brought her international fame. At the same time, she began to investigate local building traditions. Together with her husband, Suhail Zaheer Lari, she founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan and researched and saved the built heritage of her country, the two World Heritage Sites in Makli and Lahore, as well as everyday buildings.

Since 2005, Lari has been redefining architecture as climate activism. In Pakistan, one of the countries hardest hit by the climate catastrophe, she initiated the world’s largest zero-carbon self-build movement. Tens of thousands of flood- and earthquake-proof houses, sanitary infrastructure, smokeless stoves, and community facilities made of zero-carbon materials such as bamboo and mud were self-constructed according to plans by Yasmeen Lari—by people who had lost their homes, many of them among the landless poor. This work has also garnered international awards in recent years: In 2016, Lari received the Fukuoka Art and Culture Prize, in 2020, the Jane Drew Prize, and, in 2021, an honorary doctorate from the Politecnico di Milano. She currently holds a visiting professorship at the University of Cambridge.

“We need to rethink everything, and we must do it now,” says the over eighty-year-old architect who tirelessly provided architectural disaster relief in the summer of 2022 when a third of Pakistan was submerged. For Lari, architecture must balance the survival and dignity of the individual with nature and the protection of the planet. Considering the magnitude of the housing and infrastructure needs globally, Lari relies on hand-made prefabrication and low-tech serial production from low-carbon materials. “It is about finding out which method is the most cost-effective, safest, and most ecological, and then implementing it en masse,” Lari explains. She uses traditional technologies and local materials for her self-build program. She attaches particular importance to working with women.

The exhibition Yasmeen Lari. Architecture for the Future asks questions that point far beyond Lari’s work: How does architecture build the future? How radical does the building turnaround have to be so that we still have a future? How can architecture work on social and ecological justice at the same time? Modernist architecture asserted the claim to build a better future—today we are living with the aftermath of this building. The global construction sector with its enormous carbon emissions and even the globalized aid industry are partly responsible for the climate catastrophe. Yasmeen Lari’s stance and her systemic way of working show that architecture can assume responsibility. “We must tread lightly on the planet,” Yasmeen Lari insists.

The aim of the exhibition Yasmeen Lari. Architecture for the Future is to contribute to a different understanding of architecture: an architectural history that is not Western- and male-dominated, and an architectural practice that cares for people and nature. Such a practice will find locally situated answers in specific contexts, from building differently with low-carbon materials or the circular economy, to no longer erecting new structures, and working with adaptive re-use. “With this exhibition, the Architekturzentrum Wien wants to make an active contribution to ensuring that we don’t give up the possibility of the future,” says Az W Director Angelika Fitz.

About the Structure of the Exhibition
Based on Yasmeen Lari’s work, the exhibition shows how the relationship between architecture and the future has been changing. Lari’s work, ranging from modern buildings made of concrete, glass, and steel to the current self-building movement with the materials of mud, bamboo, and lime, tempts one to think in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after.’ For the curators Angelika Fitz, Elke Krasny, and Marvi Mazhar, their many years of intensive research rendered the continuities in Lari’s work legible. Early on, Lari experimented with mud buildings, and her preoccupation with traditional architecture and historical urban planning in Pakistan influenced her first large social housing projects. What runs through the entire six decades of her work is the focus on the needs of those historically silenced, on disenfranchised and low-income populations, and especially on women and children. Later, she added the ecological needs of nature and the environment. For Yasmeen Lari, decolonization at the level of architecture and urban planning means ‘unlearning’ and lifelong ‘relearning.’ The exhibition follows this relearning in a loose chronology, structuring Lari’s work by themes relevant far beyond Pakistan. The central concern is how the relationship between architecture and the future can be better understood and redefined.

Curators: Angelika Fitz, Elke Krasny, and Marvi Mazhar
Scenography: Alexandra Maringer
Graphic design: Alexander Ach Schuh
Project coordination: Agnes Wyskitensky

The exhibition is accompanied by the book Yasmeen Lari: Architecture for the Future, published by the MIT Press. With contributions by Angelika Fitz, Elke Krasny, Marvi Mazhar, Chris Moffat, Helen Thomas, Anila Naeem, Abira Ashfaq, Raquel Rolnik, Anne Karpf, Runa Khan, Cassandra Cozza, and Rafia Zakaria.