RIBA Gold Medal awarded to Pakistan’s first female architect

Yasmeen Lari, Pakistan’s first female architect, has won the 2023 RIBA Royal Gold Medal, widely regarded as one of the highest awards in architecture

The ‘inspirational’ 82-year-old, who became famous first for her Brutalist buildings, then for her ‘second career’ championing humanitarian architecture, will collect the 174th Royal Gold Medal in June.

Born in Pakistan in 1941, Lari trained as an architect in the UK then opened her own practice in Pakistan aged 23. She achieved ‘starchitect’ status over her 40-year career, designing major international corporate landmarks out of glass, steel and cement, including the Pakistan State Oil House and Karachi’s finance and trade centre.

But she retired from mainstream practice in 2000 to dedicate herself to designing accessible, zero-carbon construction techniques for communities displaced by the impact of climate change. Her work with materials including earth, lime and bamboo led to her becoming known as ‘the barefoot architect’.

Self-build shelters

Lari founded the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan with her husband Suhail Zaheer Lari in 1980, through which the couple pioneered self-build sustainable shelter designs, creating 50,000 dwellings.

The RIBA’s Honours Committee, which chose Lari to win the medal, said: ‘whilst recognising the importance of her role in practice, as a symbol of change in Pakistan, it is the work she has undertaken since her retirement in 2000 that the Royal Gold Medal celebrates.’

The committee praised her ‘robust, intelligent yet simple, architectural designs that allow those who are in distress to build for their own needs, using the available debris of disaster’, and her ‘model of reuse and reinvention that engages and empowers’.

Reacting to the award, Lari said: "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."

Changing lives for the better

RIBA president Simon Allford, who chaired the award committee, described Lari as ‘inspirational’ for her move from large, international practice to 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."

Allford described Lari’s work in zero carbon and zero waste construction as ‘exemplary’, describing how she has ‘reacted imaginatively and creatively, making affordable projects that address the real and often urgent need for accommodation, and basic services, but with generosity and an eye for the potential of everyday materials and crafts to make architecture at all scales’.

He added: ‘Her way of working also sets out to address the physical and psychological damage caused by major natural disasters – disaster that sadly inevitably will be ever more prevalent in our densely populated and climate challenged planet.’

Lari has already won a number of other prestigious architecture awards throughout her career, including the UNESCO Recognition award in 2002, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz from the President of Pakistan in 2006, the Fukuoka Prize for Asian Arts and Culture in Japan in 2016, and the international Jane Drew Prize in London in 2020.

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