Presented at IAPEX 2008, 1-3 March 2008, organized by Institute of Architects Pakistan, Karachi Chapter

by Yasmeen Lari

I am delighted to be among this august gathering of eminent architects and the luminaries of the future – this is an extremely significant occasion when IAP a body which started off with perhaps a half a dozen members gathering in Karachi, over time grew it into a national organization, has now completed 50 years of existence. My warm tribute to all who kept the lamp burning throughout this long journey and my congratulations to the present office bearers of the Institute.

The body was formed to fight for the rights of architects and as a civil society organization has a mandate to provide a leadership role for societal change, protect the rights of people to have access to design particularly policies that affect the urban environment. In the past it has acted as the forum for discussion for new thoughts and concepts. I believe it must play its role more aggressively, not in response to any political agenda, but to chart out new and hitherto uncharted avenues for young architects.

I find myself at a disadvantage …. since, having retired from architectural practice in 2000 and taken up other challenges, today I am so remote from the world of contemporary architecture that it is difficult to come up with words of wisdom that are customary utterances..

But Misbah Najmi, Maria and Arshad, were kind and persuasive – and so here I am.

Today I will not be presenting you with breathtaking images of great works of architecture - you must have experienced sufficient number in the last two days - my talk is really a rambling reminiscences of an architect such as myself working in a country – an LDC- a less industrially developed country, with its highly developed corporate sector and a growing middle class on the one end, a country with a treasure house of ancient heritage both tangible and intangible, a wealth of vernacular building traditions based on natural materials, and a mass of disadvantaged populace with its own innate wisdom, but waiting for its energy to be tapped.

So, for me it has been an exciting journey to work within the mult-layered society such as we have in Pakistan. I was lucky that it was not only one kind of role that I was forced to play but had the opportunity to undertake a range of roles to relate to the reality of Pakistan. Where else would you be allowed to build state of the art buildings for the Upper or Modern Circuit (as defined by Economist Milton Santos), to the community worker in the informal settlements and low income abadis of the Lower Circuit as a socially conscious crusader, from heritage safeguarding of monuments and sites and adaptive re-use of buildings and districts as a culturally driven heritage advocate, to the exciting world of research and writing as a historian and a scholar; working on indigenous technologies, along with propagation of vernacular traditions in our rural landscape in an infinite variation of mud, brick, stone and wood to work towards improved methodologies for environmentally sustainable construction.

All are the roles and more for the architect in today’s Pakistan, for the extremes of wealth and poverty remain as powerful today as they were ever before, and both equally demand the attention of the professional endowed with design capabilities – perhaps the lower circuit more than the upper one in view of the deficit of design that is suffered among the disadvantaged communities requiring higher levels of design skills for it is the marginalized groups that require help in lifting them from apathy and despair into a productive future by opening for them a window to the world, which I believe only architects could do with passion and commitment.

The Prima Donna Architect

Today’s reminiscences force me to look into the past and I find that I can divide my life in somewhat recognizable segments.

Returning to Pakistan in December 1963 as a fresh graduate from Oxford School of Architecture, now Oxford Brookes University, in a world where the architect was an unknown species of a professional. Trained as my contemporaries and I were, in the tradition of modern masters, Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier to name a few, the architectural landscape in Pakistan seemed dismal to say the least. Where we were trained as prima donnas, having believed that architect was God, that whatever one conceived would be implemented without question or demur, you were confronted with the misguided public perception of the architect being useful only for making pretty facades.

All young architects require the first chance to begin and my soon-to-be-married brother presented himself as the proverbial sacrificial lamb.

I often quote the story of the rickety ladder, which became a test case for a young woman, and watched keenly by the contractor and workers, daring me to climb and waiting to see if I would falter. This test had to be passed even when I became fully established and a ‘big-shot’ architect whether the PSO House (Karachi) or Finance and Trade Centre Karachi, both 11 storey high buildings or even the ABN Amro head office, the last building I designed where the construction of staircase was delayed until the last moment. It was a struggle for supremacy at the site and I felt I had to pass it to have authority over the high level of rejection of contractors’ work that I became known for.

The Phase of Unlearning – the late 1960s, 1970s

My generation of architects, who went abroad for studies, was trained in the western tradition, with little understanding of what the developing world was all about. Quite early in my professional life I felt that I had to unlearn many of the lessons that had been taught to be able to relate to my own world in Pakistan.

It was due to this feeling and also the interest of my Oxonian husband Suhail Lari, although a business executive at the time, but equally enamoured with history and writing, that from late 1960s I began to roam the old cities such as Lahore and Multan, Thatta and Peshawar – cities on which we were later able to work on heritage cataloguing and research for books.

The two ends of the spectrum that I alluded to earlier, have been forcefully articulated by two famous architects, that I often quote:

Mies van der Rohe, a master of putting elements of buildings together and a grand master of details, has said: “I am first interested in a good building, then I place it in the best possible spot.”

In contrast, Hassan Fathy, who brought out more forcefully than anybody else the beauty of the vernacular and the importance of tradition, has stated: “You must start from the beginning, letting your new buildings grow from the daily lives of the people who will live in them, shaping the houses to the measure of the people’s songs, weaving the pattern of a village as if on the village looms, mindful of the trees and the crops that will grow there, respectful of skyline and humble before seasons.”

The possibility of studying historic towns was opened up quite unexpectedly in the late 1960s. Dr. Mubashir Hassan, recently turned consultant had been given the assignment for some housing in Multan. On the lookout for young architects, he spotted three of us, Habib Fida Ali, Nowsherwan Cowasjee and myself and asked us to take up the assignment. Where it was interesting to design housing, for me just visiting the old town of Multan, opened up a huge vista, and a research bug that would never leave me again. It started me on a journey of discovery and reinforced the resolve for unlearning and above all to find one’s roots.

Coincidentally, late 1960s was also the time when I got involved in informal settlements and began the work in Essa Nagri, Karachi, consisting of a marginalized community, an activity hardly undertook by any other professional at the time, perhaps because of which I was even appointed project coordinator in 1974 for Slum Improvement by KDA. The work in Essa Nagri combined with the walk throughs in historic cores of Multan and Lahore brought about a greater understanding regarding urban morphology of these areas and their application to contemporary planning for greater community interaction.

Above all it proved that medieval organic form of historic towns as well as the self planned communities in katchi abadis had far greater vigour, compared to the dismal ‘planned’ areas. The lessons learnt were many and I delved into them quite liberally during the next decades:

It is the experience of the historic towns that I began to incorporate the ‘no cost’ courtyards or terraces, at even the second or third floor, which would act as a hub for women’s activities at even the uppermost levels in the old towns; the narrow pedestrian streets that provided privacy yet allowed community interaction and the low-rise, high density developments, were all valuable lessons in the Naval Housing in Karachi in late 1960s as well as in the Angoori Bagh Housing (mid-seventies) which I think stood as stark contrast to the wave of five storey matchboxes that had become a predominant solution for low income housing.

This was also the time that I desperately wanted to experiment with mud buildings. I remember being invited by the then president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to have a discussion. I was a little apprehensive, since my family had just received a blow of nationalization as one of the ill-fated member of 22 families who, reputed to have amassed large fortunes, had to be deprived of everything they possessed to be taught a lesson. Contrary to my fears Mr. Bhutto accompanied by Mrs. Nusrat Bhutto were most kind and he thought being a young architect I should take on several challenging projects.

I was keen to build a mud village and he said I should try it out in Naudero, his hometown. Where, my family’s warnings would stop me from undertaking other projects, which included the Sindh House, Islamabad, at the time, I was keen to take up the mud village. I remember the arrival in my office of a functionary of Mr. Bhutto, who expressed complete surprise in my wanting to take up mud construction. He seemed rather perturbed, “Why should you want to build in mud: what could possibly be in it for you and for anybody else?”

Unfortunately, the powers that be would not allow me to build what I thought would have been a breakthrough in the use of vernacular construction methodologies.

Soon after my meeting with Mr. Bhutto, I got a call for a meeting from his powerful minister Dr. Mubashir Hassan. As we met, it transpired that they had plans to make me what he called “the czar of architecture.” The Government wanted to nationalize the professions of architecture and engineering, and I was considered suitable to take over the nascent PEPAC. I had no desire to be a Government employee and I naturally declined. Mubashir shot back: “If you do not take it on, you will never get another project in Pakistan.” I told him it did not matter, as a woman I had other alternatives: “I will just become a housewife.”

Later I was able to build a mud prototype barrack in the intensely hot region of Bahawalpur, when General Saeed Qadir, quarter master general at the time, even though he considered me entirely mad for wanting to do so, while there was corps comamnder, also who he thought was a half mad, but was keen to find an economical solution in the intense heat of the Cholistan region.

Although I managed to build a 60-man barrack in 1981, alas, it seems that the army also thought that there was nothing in it for anybody.

The Battlefront - Recognition of the Architect – Late 1970s, 1980s

My memory brings back my first meeting, a wonderful encounter with the great Hassan Fathy, when Khwaja Zaheeruddin and myself arrived in Aiglemont among the 30 invitees to debate the form of Aga Khan Award for Architecture being devised by the Aga Khan, MIT’s Bill Porter, Harvard’s Oleg Grabar, and Iran’s Nader Ardalan, the author of the ‘Sense of Unity’. It was a superb seminar, when all of us were feted and entertained in a most gracious manner. The associations formed at the time resulted in the First Aga Khan Award for Architecture being held in the historic Shalamar Gardens a few years later when I was president IAP.

My first association with the Institute of Architects had started in, I think perhaps in mid-1960s. I remember attending meetings in the modest Arts Council restaurant with Khwaja Zahiruddin, Minoo Mistri and Rustomji when there would hardly be half a dozen attendees.

Come the 1980s, and with election as president of IAP, I knew that for me the payback time for the profession had arrived.

There was no protection to the word ‘architect’ and there was dire need for legislation. There had been many attempts but the lobby of non-architects was far too strong. As it happened when I was offered to be in the Majlis-e-Shoora, I saw it as a way to make an attempt to get the legislation through. It was a difficult decision as part of a family where my father-in-law had to suffer jail for raising a voice against the first Martial Law in 1961.

As I struggled to get the legislation through, there were full page advertisements against me from non-architects and a wave of opposition from those who had only partially completed their architectural courses to those who held engineering degrees, all were now under threat.

There were also many who had been given licenses to practice by local authorities and several were only semi-qualified diploma holders. A grandfather clause was developed which would provide such ones with protection; however, in future nobody could be given a license unless they were fully trained either in Pakistan or abroad. At this juncture, the planners wanted to join because otherwise they would not be able to get recognition. It was thus that the Pakistan Council of Architects and Planners was devised.

But in spite of this intense conflict and perhaps because of it, there were many in powerful positions that were completely against architects being given protection. In the cabinet itself there were 3 powerful ministers who were engineers, who opposed its passage on varying grounds.

We finally managed to have it pushed through and I remember vividly the conversation with Gen. Ziaul Haq who spotted me in the Assembly cafeteria and informed me, “I approved your architects ordinance today only because I had made a promise to you, in spite of opposition by several ministers.“

Probably it was only a matter of time that we would have got recognition but the feeling of despondency was great at the time, and I felt that protection was essential for the profession to flourish and for the well being of future generations of architects. So, it felt good when I was reminded by Chairman Shahab Ghani, that PCATP also is 25 years old and doing well.

We managed to hold several seminars in Pakistan which brought a lot of goodwill and recognition of architects during this decade. The seminar with the Aga Khan Award when the Aga Khan and Begum Aga Khan were our guests at the IAP dinner, and in later years the collaboration with Aga Khan Programme at MIT would bring their faculty to Karachi and elsewhere, bringing into focus the value of discussion regarding issues that were confronting the profession at the time.

Finding the Roots: Research and Writing Late 1980s and 1990s

The Heritage Foundation had been established in 1980 as a family trust by us after the documentation of the historic town of Thatta that was carried out in collaboration with the famous Moenjodaro expert Michael Jansen and his team from the Aachen University. This was the seminal work that was published as a book titled “Traditional Architecture of Thatta’ and was the beginning of my writing career.

The seminar “a Search for Identity” held by the Foundation in Karachi which was designed to highlight the value of traditional towns and historic cores, for the first time brought together Department of Archaeology’s Ishtiaq Khan, historians such as Hamida Khuhro and Suhail Lari, along with Michael Jansen and some other international figures.

The Foundation managed to also hold seminars in Moenjodaro, where Kausar Bashir Ahmad brought a number of students and faculty from the Dawood College.

It was activities such as these that became our most important objectives during the late 1980s and 1990s when systematic cataloguing of heritage assets of Karachi was started. The Foundation began a series in the National Register of Historic Places of Pakistan, and its 9 Karachi documents became the basis for notifying almost 600 historic buildings in Karachi, and the reason why in spite of the attempts at destruction of historic resources. Karachi still possesses the largest number of protected historic buildings in any city in Pakistan.

With the experience gained in legislation of PCATP, we pushed through a legislation which became known as Sindh Cultural Preservation Act 1994, unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly.

For me the book co-authored with my son Mihail Lari ‘The Dual City: Karachi During the Raj” became something of a labour of love. In contrast to my historian husband, who has been trained well at Oxford, I had to become a self-taught researcher and learnt how to be sleuth in locating old and antiquarian material ranging from maps to photographs to manuscripts and texts, whether in long-forgotten cupboards in offices here or in the India Office Library in London.

And also how to piece vignettes of history, considering how defective my education in history had been – for Oxford School of Architecture nothing but history of architecture in the west had been important – Palladio, Vetruvius, Banister Fletcher to name a few.

But then the discovery of long forgotten documents brings a special high, only to be experienced to be believed. I also became a self taught paper conservationist, piecing together 500 antiquarian maps of Karachi many dating from 1874. To this day, I only have to touch old paper to immediately be transported into another world, and everywhere I see a torn page in an antique book, I want to rush to repair it.

During this decade we tried to compile and also publish books based on the source material that had been developed.

Heritage for Survival and Identity – Late 1990s Early 2000

The writing and research brought a heightened awareness regarding the need for safeguarding our heritage. I had been able to work on conservation of some British Period buildings but the great need for the awareness to be spread in order to safeguard the amazing array of heritage assets that Pakistan possessed was evident.

The historic cores themselves were entirely vulnerable particularly the downtowns which had an enormous reservoir of British-Period and sometimes even earlier assets. These are the markers of history which endowed our cities with special character and once gone, the cities would be entirely anonymous with no distinctive attributes.

The decision to quit architecture was not as difficult as it might seem. My husband Suhail and I had felt for a long time that we needed to concentrate more on books and to devise strategies for heritage safeguarding. And so I took a conscious decision to give up my architectural practice in 2000, primarily to be able to compile and write about the material developed and collected over the last two decades.

My Karachi Heritage Guidebook had just been published and suddenly people realized the wealth of heritage that the city possessed. There were many young people who wished to celebrate the positive aspects of Karachi that they found in the book and that is how KaravanKarachi was born – as a celebration of the strength and diversity of Karachi and its communities.

The KaravanKarachi was an unbelievable phenomenon, which was entirely run by high placed experts who participated and made it happen on a voluntary basis. There was an incredible outpouring of affection for the city and its activities proved the power of heritage a force of integration. Karachi had been wracked with violence during the 1990s, but our large-scale public assemblies every consecutive Sundays for months at an end, celebrating heritage assets of the city, began to normalize the cities. Our first event was in celebration of the Empress Market. A large stage was erected on the street, where the streets had been blocked, for the first time for ordinary citizens rather than VIPs, as a member of the traffic police declared, it became the venue of an assembly of 10,000 people, many hanging from balconies and from the elevated overbridge. The celebration consisted of speeches by eminent intellectuals and performances by school children and street theatre providing free entertainment to ordinary people. We all sat on the pavements and I happily lost my architect’s inflated ego, which loss has served me well in later years.

The media, and it was really print media at the time, became our partner in propagating the events, even though we never held a press conference. The KaravanKarachi events not only brought into sharp focus the invaluable tangible heritage of Karachi, the assemblies helped normalize the city, as the Governor Mohammadmian Soomro declared in one of our gatherings. Karachiites who had been wary of collecting on the streets, once again began to do so in celebration of its heritage.

KaravanKarachi has now become KaravanPakistan since it now holds events and activities all over Pakistan.

Shahi Qila Lahore

One of the most memorable and rewarding works undertaken for me would be the work in the Lahore Fort. I was appointed UNESCO’s National Advisor along with the appointment of Heritage Foundation as the lead organization. From early 2003 to December 2005, I was privileged to lead a team of experts, which included some eminent architects – Prof. Sajida Vandal, here today – and dedicated personnel of the Department of Archaeology.

That we were able to rescue the endangered Shish Mahal ceiling was nothing short of a miracle. But some of the other work that was carried out at the time was also pathbreaking. Including the documentation of each and every feature of the intricate Shah Burj, as well as the development of the masterplan.

Among the Disadvantaged - Hope Emerges from Despair, 2005

The Great Earthquake of 8 October 2005 galvanized the whole country and each Pakistani wished to contribute in whichever way she or he could. It was this spirit that motivated hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis and friends all over the world to provide assistance to the disaster stricken.

It was the Karavan volunteers, from Pakistan and abroad who, took the message of KAPIT, Karavan Programme for Indigenous Technology, and helped built a large number of emergency houses based on recycled materials, use of lime and strengthening of corners to make seismic resistant houses, known as the KaravanGhar.