What answers does architecture provide to the climate crisis? With the world’s first mono- graphic 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 extraordi- nary 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 decarboniza- tion. 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Using previously unpublished photos, drawings, and documents, the three curators Angelika Fitz, Elke Krasny, and Marvi Mazhar convey the architect’s impressive career from interna- tional 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 infra- structure, 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.

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

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