March issue 2011

By | People | Profile | Published 13 years ago

At sixty-something, Yasmeen Lari has more on her plate than a strapping 26-year-old. And everything she is involved in is meaningful, productive and backed by a vision. Architect — although she insists she has retired, she has consistently been involved in the construction of houses for IDPs since 2005 — historian, conservationist, author and social activist all rolled into one, Lari is one person who is always on the go.

When I interviewed her more than a decade ago, she was charged with a burning desire to create awareness among Karachiites about all the unsung heritage sites that existed in the city and to celebrate its diversity. And she always achieves what she sets out to — lack of finances or work force never stand in the way. If she has to do it single-handedly she will, and she is convinced that if you work with sincerity, funds and assistance follow. It is no wonder then that she has been able to achieve all that she has — whether it is organising street festivals outside heritage sites every Sunday for six months; holding a month of cultural activities including a carnival parade; writing books; conducting workshops; conserving heritage sites; building earthquake-resistant homes, schools and bathrooms in Siran Valley; initiating income-generating activities for the women of Kodar and the Jabbar cluster of villages; setting up a base camp-cum-research centre in Chattar; or rehabilitating flood victims in Swat.

A graduate of the Oxford School of Architecture, Lari set up her own practice way back in the ’60s — the only female architect in Pakistan to do so. With several major commercial projects to her credit, including the Finance and Trade Centre and the PSO House, it was her low-cost housing scheme comprising mud houses that became her pet project. Little did she know then that her design — or an evolved form of it — would become an integral part of her work some 50 years down the road.

Lari’s thirst for the country’s architectural history and realisation that there was no research work done on it led her to document buildings — something she still continues to do. From her first research work on Thatta, which paved the way to the formation of the Heritage Foundation, of which she is the executive director, she has come a long way. In Karachi alone, she has documented 600 heritage sites that were notified. The Foundation also helped to save two beautiful and important heritage buildings that were on the verge of being demolished: the Flagstaff House and Hindu Gymkhana. Last year, it also played a pivotal role in preventing the demolition of the historic buildings that were bombed during the Ashura procession in Karachi.

Heritage took up most of her time till the time the earthquake struck in the northern areas of Pakistan. So moved was she by the devastation caused by the earthquake, and so frustrated by the unnecessarily expensive and environmentally unfriendly housing that was being provided to the victims that she designed low-cost housing using rubble and indigenous material. She mobilised the locals in their construction, while a group of architects and volunteers supervised it — they built over 1,200 Karavan Ghars. The houses were made with wood, stone, lime, mesh and mud, and galvanised iron sheets served as roofs. With time and experimentation to make the housing more and more environment-friendly and sustainable, she came up with mud and wood roofs instead.

But not content with her achievements, Lari practically moved to the northern areas, building bathrooms, schools, and kitchens, where she initiated the preparation, packaging and selling of corn bread. Instrumental in changing the mindset of people in the areas where she worked, she made them learn to be self-sufficient rather than live on the dole, and got the womenfolk involved in crafts that she helped market.

And then along came the floods, and Lari found herself, once again, making a home away from home. After setting up relief camps in Mardan and providing temporary shelters there, she started erecting community kitchens using bamboos and discovered that it was an extremely effective material, for it made for fast construction. “The urgency of the situation and shortage of time were responsible for my experimenting with a combination of bamboo, lime and mud, and it was an amazing discovery for me too,” explains Lari. “I had not understood the value of mud and lime till then, for though I had worked with both materials earlier, our walls used to be much thicker. What’s more, when we used lime and mud plastering on matting for the walls, we discovered that it provides great insulation — there was a difference of eight degrees between internal and external temperatures.”

Armed with this discovery, Lari moved to Swat in October last year to assist the displaced people there in setting up their homes. She elaborates: “Architecture students from NCA volunteered their services, and the army facilitated them by giving them security and a place to stay in their mess. However, since none of the architects and engineers want to spend prolonged periods of time there, I have worked out a system whereby the households themselves pitch in, in the construction of their homes. Not only do they help physically in the flooring and plastering of walls, but they have also been taught to detect errors in construction, so that they can supervise the artisan teams in case they make mistakes.

We have built 266 Green Karavan Ghar — basically in upper Swat, but also some in lower Swat — which is a large number, considering the difficulty of the terrain and the lack of a trained workforce there initially. We then trained the locals, so our techniques and methodology have been transferred. In fact, our teams have become so quick and efficient that they can construct these highly economical earthquake-resistant houses — each house costs less than Rs 50,000 — comprising a room of 10 by 18, a commode, bath space, kitchenette and a veranda, in less than a week.”

These houses have already literally weathered storms for, according to Lari, “There has been three-foot snow on them, and they have managed to resist it. We had tested them out, with 10 people standing on the roof, and it hadn’t collapsed. Now, if floods strike again, the structure of the roof is so strong that it will withstand the pressure. At the most, the mud filling will be washed away, which can easily be replaced within no time, and we don’t have to fell trees to build these homes.” But, as was the case in the earthquake areas, Lari couldn’t pull out after constructing the homes. The women wanted to earn a livelihood so she agreed to set up a women’s centre for them and provided them handlooms. When the men heard that she was setting up khaddis for the women, they insisted they wanted to learn it too. So the women are trained in the day, and the men in the evening. They were provided the raw material initially, and they are confident that they will be able to sell whatever they make. The centre has hired a couple from Islampur, the woman teaches in the morning and the man in the evenings. The project is proceeding like a dream and practically every woman is able to sell what she makes. Looms have been provided to 150 trained women in their houses. The women who used to do khaddi work before tell me that the place where they were employed would treat them like household servants,” says Lari. “What’s more, they are earning three times the amount they were paid earlier.”

There are six or seven women who are graduates and she plans on introducing computers for them. “I think saving Swat is a battle for Pakistan,” says Lari. “We have to target livelihood opportunities, and it is essential to keep their young people occupied. We must provide them sports, education, computers, etc. Mercifully the civil government and the army have tried to make the schools functional, so most kids are back at school. But, there are still some areas which are not so accessible where there are no schools.”

Lari says she keeps a low profile and does her work without any fanfare so, perhaps, that is the reason why she has not had to contend with terrorists. But she feels that the one thing that is acutely lacking in Swat is the presence of civil society. “When NCA (National College of Art) students went to work with the kids in Swat, it was an eye-opener for the Swatis. They saw that there were other ways of doing things too and saw a connection with the outside world. The army has done a tremendous job of clearing the area of militants and repairing schools etc, but now they need to recede into the background and we need to become more active as a people. I don’t like seeing guns everywhere, no matter how friendly its owner may be.”

Lari feels that the government should concentrate its energies on livelihood programmes and getting people to become self-reliant. Meanwhile, she is busy trying to develop corn cookies as a livelihood-sustaining programme for the women of Swat. Roses are being planted in the base camp as an experiment, and if it works every house will begin to plant them.

And, of course, Lari is still writing her books. She is also busy restoring Denso Hall in partnership with the KESC and converting it into the Karachi Heritage Gallery, which will also boast an e-gallery. Conservation work has also already begun on the building. She continues with her work of salvaging and conserving Karachi Municipal Records and Karachi Port Trust Archives. In Peshawar, the provincial government has appointed her honorary project director for the Sethi House, and she has already completed documentation for them and started conservation work on it. Says Lari: “The building boasts 17 crafts, so I am very excited about it. There is also an amazing building called the Ali Mardan Garden Pavilion, which I am documenting, although there is no funding for it. I am also conducting a workshop in Khairpur for the Khairpur University so that people can learn to make Karavan GreenGhar there too. I think our role should now just be that of catalysts — people want to help themselves, and there are many who want to help financially. All we have to do is to show them how and provide guidelines.”

This article originally appeared in March 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “Catalyst for Change.”

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.