Yasmeen Lari, the 2023 RIBA Royal Gold Medal Winner, Reimagines Refugee Housing

As Western firms test new techniques to build low-cost refugee housing in flood-prone Pakistan, homegrown architect Yasmeen Lari is advocating for a more sensible approach using local materials.

Yasmeen Lari

Yasmeen Lari’s most famous building may be the headquarters for Pakistan’s state-owned oil company, a hulking Brutalist behemoth in Karachi. But lately the 82-year-old—Pakistan’s first certified female architect and the recipient of this year’s RIBA Royal Gold Medal—is fixed on a much different typology: refugee housing. It’s a noble pursuit given how the Central Asian country has repeatedly endured once-in-a-generation disasters at an alarming frequency. A major earthquake displaced 400,000 people in 2005; monsoon floods affected 33 million Pakistanis last year, submerging one-third of the country.

Yet refugee housing often leans on Western building materials ill-suited for the region. “I call it the international colonial charity model,” she tells Time. “NGOs and UN agencies say, ‘let’s bring in concrete, let’s bring burnt brick.’” Besides being “alien,” such carbon-intensive materials worsen the greenhouse effect causing climate disasters. As an alternative, Lari and her Heritage Foundation of Pakistan are building flood-resilient homes using local, low-carbon materials such as bamboo panels reinforced with earth and lime that sit on raised platforms. More than 3,500 homes were built last year at $200 each; a million are slated by 2024. 

The Zero Carbon Cultural Centre

Lari’s approach stands out as Western design firms grapple with addressing refugee housing amid increasingly frequent disasters. Outlandish PR-chitecture proposals like mud-spraying drones might be well-intentioned, but rarely scale. The tent structures Zaha Hadid Architects built for Pakistani schools are beloved by locals, but aren’t quite aligned with the vernacular—manufacturing, transporting, and installing foreign materials drive up costs. Architects like Pritzker Prize laureate Shigeru Ban have made designing for disaster sites a mainstream practice, and more firms are following suit. In Lari’s eyes, however, there’s always room for architects to step back and listen to what these communities really need.

“I believe this is the moment to bring about a whole change in the social system,” Lari says. “Climate change shouldn’t be taken only as a threat. If we start doing the right thing, it can really transform lives.”

The Zero Carbon Cultural Centre

All images courtesy of the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan.

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