"We need to democratise architecture"

Yasmeen Lari believes the sensibilities of the people and their cultural roots should be taken into account in designing a house for them

The News on Sunday: How do you look at architecture in Pakistan? Have we been able to evolve an architectural identity of our own? Where do social and cultural aspects stand when it comes to architecture in Pakistan?

Yasmeen Lari: This is a complex question. All of us, including myself have been engaged in catering to the 0.1 per cent through our work. Our training has always been in material and designing architecture for that one per cent.

The kind of world we live in today, we need to democratise architecture. I know that it may give an impression that I am saying this only because I am retired now, but I have become deeply involved in how architecture can provide social justice and (grounds) for an equitable society.

My use of non-engineered structures has resulted in the kind of structures that resonates with people’s own aspirations. The imagery used is vernacular heritage used for centuries by the common folk. We have to rethink the issue of identity. It is about what reflects a nation’s aspirations and not just about the wealth.

Moreover, this question is also underpinned by the fact that we have to deal with global warming and natural disasters. We cannot just build as we wish. I cannot reproduce a PSO or a Finance and Trade Centre (buildings in Karachi) because I am now aware of the inequalities that exist around us, because of my work in the villages. We need to work with the local identity, which eventually is the identity of this country.

TNS: What about the element of design? Is it subservient to functionality or is there a marriage between the two?

YL: Design is an all-encompassing aspect of everything we do. It is not merely a matter of functionality. When there are deficits in the rural areas, (design) becomes all the more important. You have to be a very good designer when working with the community because that matters. We have to understand the sensibilities of the people; their own cultural roots, in addition to the conditions that promote their well-being. Culture is far more complex. As architects, we want to impress people by our designs. However, I approach my work as designing a blank canvas. Everybody can use it to unleash and express their own creativity.

TNS: How do you view this eternal debate about modernity and tradition? How must we engage with tradition?

YL: When I came back from Oxford, I had to unlearn much, including my views and understanding about Pakistan. I visited medieval towns, such as Thatta and Multan. It is fascinating how things were put together in those times whether there were organic forms of layouts or narrow lanes or semi-private spaces. We have much to learn from those structures. Tradition is not static. At the same time, we need to keep basic principles intact. The buildings we have designed for earthquake and flood-prone areas have references in traditional structures.

I do emphasise that we have to be mindful of how we build today. We have to watch our carbon footprints as those are the ones causing global warming. Reproducing past work will not work. It is very important to look at (old structures) to understand how to create structures that resonate with people’s sensibilities, but we have to do that with the planet in mind. The depletion of this planet is something we are not thinking about at all. Heritage is important because it has to be conserved.

TNS: How engaged must an architect be with conservation? It seems that architects have been engaged more with conservation here rather than innovating.

YL: I don’t think many architects are engaged with conservation. There is need for more of their involvement in conservation. Innovation is diverse. It can also be built upon something that is already there. We have a strong tradition, which as I said before, is not static. One has to work to make it more useful for us and for our future generation.

TNS: What about the role of the state/government in forging an architectural identity. Has the state played its role?

YL: I don’t think that the state can force anything on the people. It happens in totalitarian regimes, when they want to convey a certain image to the world. The state needs to see that the well-being of the people is protected and that they have the basic facilities so that they become productive people.

Regarding the state’s role, the question we need to ask ourselves is why should we have to live in such backward conditions (where there is no equality and social justice)? How can creativity work if people have no hope in future? The government should encourage creativity. At the same time, one particular kind of creativity cannot hold. There are multiple identities and several facets of what Pakistan is today.

TNS: Is it right to assume that thekedar has become a key player in determining the direction of architecture in Pakistan?

YL: At the end of the day, architect should remain in-charge of the project. Contractors have a role to play as they implement the design. However, there is need to ensure that the buildings follow codes. When earthquakes happen, it’s the buildings that kill and not the earthquake. Most of Pakistan is either on the path of melting glaciers or earthquake fault lines. We are dealing with peoples’ lives, so responsibility in construction has to be exhibited.

"We need to democratise architecture"