The 'challenges' of being Pakistan’s first woman architect

Renowned architect, architectural historian, philanthropist and champion of Pakistan’s cultural heritage, Yasmeen Lari was recently in Melbourne for Humanitarian Architecture Week at RMIT. Yasmeen generously gave her time to speak with Alison Cleary and Susie Ashworth about life as Pakistan’s first woman architect, how the role of the architect needs to change, and the joy that comes from humanitarian work.


"If I compare myself with women architects in the West who are about my age, I think they probably had more difficulty than I did. It’s a strange thing to say, but I think that is how it was. Working in a third world country allows you to do many things, because there are so many deficits, there are so many issues and problems, and you can just see what you should pursue."


I’ve had an amazing life. I don’t believe in doing things that I don’t like or that are boring, so I think I did the right thing to get off the train of architecture at the time that I did, because that opened up many different avenues for me. When we sat out on the streets of Karachi celebrating the city’s heritage, people thought Karachi didn’t have any heritage since it was British. So, that taught me to sit out in the streets with people. And there was a whole process of losing your ego. And then I got the chance to work with UNESCO on other heritage work. There are many different kinds of things I have done, and for me they were all very interesting.

But, I have to say that the work I’m doing now is the most rewarding. I get a high every day hearing about what is happening – how many women have come in to learn something more, or whatever it is. There’s a former beggar man who comes in and we taught him how to make this bamboo furniture – and he started selling it after making it. Then, one day he came in and showed me this 500 rupee note (which is about $5), and he said “This is the first time I’ve earned money in my life of 45 years, and I’m going to keep this note, because it’s the first time I’ve earned money.” Things like that are very encouraging. They keep you going.

I’m very old now, and people ask me why I still work. I don’t think I could sit back at home, because there is still work to do. I enjoy it. It’s great fun. Shaking the system is particularly exciting. For instance, I have a lot of opposition about me using bamboo in my heritage work, and that’s fine. But you need to find different ways of doing things. There’s so much heritage in Pakistan. If we can’t find economical ways of doing the work, we can’t save it. We need to find ways of stabilising the structures and extending their life at a low cost, for maybe 15 years. And then, when the money comes in, you can conserve as you wish. But you have to save this heritage now.