Yasmeen Lari named 2023 RIBA Gold Medal recipient

Barefoot Social Architecture

Yasmeen Lari named 2023 RIBA Gold Medal recipient

Lari, seen here in front of her Zero Carbon Women Centre on Bamboo Stilts, has focused on humanitarian projects since technically retiring in 2000. (Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)

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 and established her firm Lari Associates. Lari retired in 2000, though she continues to work as an educator. 

image of a social housing complex in Lahore
Angoori Bagh Social Housing, one of Laris earlier projects, was completed for the Punjab provincial government in Pakistan. (Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)

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.”

corporate headquarters interior lobby
Laris design for the Pakistan State Oil House was emblematic of her work for public-owned entities. (Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)

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. 

exterior of a small cultural center
Laris more recent work, seen here in the Zero Carbon Cultural Centre, has focused on carbon neutral design. (Heritage Foundation of Pakistan)

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 cofounder 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.