Pakistani architect Yasmeen Lari has been awarded the 2023 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Gold Medal. The medal annually recognizes an architect or firm’s achievement, and though given by RIBA, the recipient need not be British. Recent awardees include Balkrishna Doshi (2022), David Adjaye (2021), and Grafton Architects (2020).
Lari was born in Pakistan, moved to London as a teenager, and graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in architecture in 1964. She then moved back to Pakistan, setting up her firm Lari Associates, before retiring in 2000 (though she continues to work).
Lari’s architectural work, and later activism, is socially and environmentally minded and includes several state projects. Largely working in Pakistan, her firm’s prominent projects include Angoori Bagh Social Housing in Lahore (1973), the Pakistan State Oil House in Karachi (1984), and the Zero Carbon Women Centre on Bamboo Stilts in Tando Allahyar, Sindh (2011). In addition to her firm’s work, Lari cofounded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan in 1984, an organization that documents and seeks to preserve historic aspects of the country’s built environment.
Lari said the following in response to receiving the award: “I was so surprised to hear this news and of course totally delighted! I never imagined that as I focus on my country’s most marginalised people — venturing down uncharted vagabond pathways – I could still be considered for the highest of honours in the architectural profession.
RIBA has heralded a new direction for the profession, encouraging all architects to focus not only on the privileged but also humanity at large that suffers from disparities, conflicts and climate change. There are innumerable opportunities to implement principles of circular economy, de-growth, transition design, eco-urbanism, and what we call Barefoot Social Architecture (BASA) to achieve climate resilience, sustainability and eco justice in the world.”
Lari’s BASA design approach seeks to minimally impact the natural environment, and in later years her work has focused on innovative material uses and construction methods to demonstrate the feasibility of this. Minimizing carbon and waste in her projects, Lari’s work expanded to include the design for the Chulah Cookstove, which offers a safer and less emissive stove than those typically used in Pakistan. According to RIBA, 80,000 stoves have been produced. Lari’s current work is focusing on preservation and regeneration of historic sections of Lahore, and she is currently a professor in the department of architecture at the University of Cambridge.
RIBA president Simon Allford said that ““It was an honour to chair the committee that selected Yasmeen Lari. An inspirational figure, she moved from a large practice centred on the needs of international clients to focussing solely on humanitarian causes. Lari’s mission during her ‘second’ career has empowered the people of Pakistan through architecture, engaging users in design and production. She has shown us how architecture changes lives for the better.”
The RIBA Honours Committee, which considers nominations for the medal, is chaired by Allford and includes, RSHP senior partner Ivan Harbour, artist Cornelia Parker, chief executive of the London School of Architecture Neal Shasore, and Walters & Cohen Architects co-founder Cindy Walters.
Lari is the subject of the forthcoming MIT Press publication Yasmeen Lari Architecture for the Future, edited by Angelika Fitz, Elke Krasny, Marvi Mazhar, and Architekturzentrum Wien.