Yasmin Cheema

One of the pioneering women Architects of Pakistan

Archi Times -Yasmin Cheema, whose name will be penned down in history as one of the pioneering women Architects of Pakistan, is an icon of inspiration & motivation for Architects today & future ones to come. As a Conservation Specialist and Architectural Educator, she tells us about her voyage through the profession and the opportunities which, when appropriately taken, made her reach this epitome of success.

Awards & Honors achieved by Professor Yasmin Cheema include:
* 2006- to-date: Distinguished Professor School of Architecture Research, School of Architecture and Design, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.
* 2006 – Member of The Aga Khan ‘Thinking Group’ for the Department of Architecture and Human Settlement to be established at AKU Karachi.
* UNESCO Distinction Award for Uch Monument Complex.
* 2001- 2006: Member Board of Governors, National Fund for Culture Heritage, Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs, Government of Pakistan.
* 2001-2003: Member Board of Governors, National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan.
* 1996: G. P. A. 4.0 – PhD Courses, Program of Conservation of Historic Monuments and Sites, Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, Turkey
* 1991 – 1992: Aga Khan Foundation Grant for Studies Program of Conservation of Historic Monuments and Sites, Middle Eastern Technical University.

ARCHI TIMES (AT): An acquaintance with your personality, personal interests, and your childhood and family background:

Yasmin Cheema (YC): My personality can be best defined by the students I taught or the people who know me well, as one can be well described by those with whom one has worked with, or have had a personal experience of getting acquainted with. I remember my students giving me compliments at times though I think I was one of the extremely tough teachers of that era.

My personal interests other than architecture are my children. I spend one evening in the week with them. It’s more like a family reunion when my son Dr. Ali Cheema, daughter- in-law Laila Rehman, and two Grand Children, Heer , Husain and I get together to cherish an evening together.

I am very proud of my family background, my Father was a Session Judge at the time of partition and we are four sisters. My Father passed away at the age of 43 and my Mother, Mrs. S. T Ahmed became the First Woman Banker in the country at National Bank in Lahore. The early memories that I can recollect of my family are that after my Father’s death my Mother was the one who supported us and always encouraged us to move ahead like an enlightening beacon. Her commendable support and continuous encouragement has made me and my sisters what we are today. She did not let us become economically handicapped and gave us all the autonomy of decision in the world.

AT: Being one of the pioneering female Architects of Pakistan is a great accomplishment – how did this journey begin? What were the underlying motivations for your foray into architecture?

YC: My Mother was instrumental in all of our humanity building because I was the first lady to join the co-ed in the family and even at National College of Arts. I had many maternal older cousins, almost the age of my Mother who had done their masters in various fields from Delhi, pre-partition. From the paternal branch of my family I have many female cousins, all of us are working, and all of us are professionals. There was more emphasis in our family on Education so for that reason; three of my sisters are also educationists.

My main schooling was from St. Cathedral’s. After doing my F.SC premedical from Kinnaird College Lahore, I got into NCA because my cousin Professor Salima Hashmi was studying at NCA; she suggested I visit the College for possibilities for joining one of the Departments. My elder sister, Nina Cheema, wife of the renowned Dentist Dr. Saleem Cheema, who excelled in everything was better in drawing than I was, therefore I was not confident in entering the Fine Arts Department.

When I went to College there were options of getting into Fine Arts, Design, or Architecture. Considering many science subjects constituted the curriculum of Architecture, I decided to register in it. And that is how the journey began towards a career in Architecture. Hence
Salima was my underlying motivation for my choice of career.

AT: How did the journey unfold initially? What challenges did you face while trying to prove your mettle in a male dominated society? What was the nascent interface with the profession like?

YC: We had classes all night in NCA at that time, way back in the early 60’s. I had a teacher Qazi Sahab in NCA who thought I would not be able to handle Architectural Education as I was a female but once I was his student, he not only taught, and even took care of me. He and another younger teacher walked me to the bus stop 12 o’ clock at night regularly. I was the first and only female in Architecture during my 5 years in NCA – The profession was demanding with meticulous teachers but we strode though it really well. I never had to face any biases, at that time all men and women were treated equal in the College and even in the Professional practice. Values and professionalism were observed well.

AT: In retrospect, what do you wish you were instead of being an Architect?
YC: Well, I gave up Architecture a long time ago when I started teaching – in pursuit of becoming an Educationist which I have enjoyed the most. I practiced for a shorter period followed by completely devoting myself towards Architectural education.

AT: How has your education benefited your career?
YC: In many respects – I achieved my Diploma in Architecture from NCA in 1966, after that I worked as an apprentice for two years in Lahore to get the membership for IAP, a rule then. I practiced initially with Nayyar Ali Dada and Tanveer Hasan in Lahore; Arif Hasan in Karachi. I followed my own independent practice, designing some corporate buildings like some bank projects. Soon after, I taught Architecture in Departments of Architecture at NCA Lahore and Dawood College of Engineering & Technology, Karachi from 1976- 1989. This was along with selected projects’ architectural practices both at Lahore and Karachi.

As opportunities came, I went to Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey in 1989 where I taught as well as studied my Masters in Conservation of Historic Monuments and Cities with Majors in Monument Conservation finished my PhD courses in the same Department with GPA of 4.00 in 1996. Along with my study program in Turkey where I lived for 10 years, I also had the experience of teaching at the Department of Interior Architecture at Bilkent University, Ankara Turkey.

My experience of studying and teaching in Turkey enabled me to cofound CRC (The Conservation & Rehabilitation Centre) in Pakistan.

I have complied two inventories of Heritage in Pakistan, the purpose which differed from each other. One was for the Aga Khan Cultural Services, Its aim was to record the Tangible, Intangible Heritage of the Hunza and Nagar valleys of the Northern Areas, Pakistan.

The second inventory’s goal was to record the historical assets of Earthquake Areas 2005, funded by Prince Claus Fund, Culture Emergency Fund in 2006. The information for this was complied by an interdisciplinary team of historians, civil engineer, structural engineers, architects, and myself. The information gathered resulted in a book, The Vanishing History of Earthquake Areas 2005, edited by two internationally known Earthquake Engineers, Professor Polat Gülkan and Professor Tanvir Wasti, of the Civil Engineering Department, METU. The contents of the book are, history of effected provinces, cities, their morphology, and all aspects of the buildings included. They are history of the building, their physical con I like to point that the un-intentional destruction of our heritage is caused by the very custodians of heritage, the department of archaeology. None qualified in the subject, a few have attend short courses at ICCROM or other countries. If I use a simile, they are compounders, not doctors, who have specialised in the various fields. Though the architects and engineers of these departments spend a lot of energy and their intention are to save the heritage, the result is often damaging. IAP, PCATP can only get involved in heritage issues if requested by ICOMOS Pakistan. ICOMOS Pakistan is also responsible for confusion of qualified and unqualified conservation architects. Material, structural features, inherent deficiencies, alteration, general conditions, seismic damage evaluation, and earthquake damage pattern tests, investigations, retrofitting, strengthening, and preservation plan has been recommended for each historical building incorporated.

As an architect I have executed projects in Pakistan and Bangladesh. They include banks, school buildings, housing colonies and some independent housing.

I have been a key note speaker at several national and international conferences and participant of many others.

AT: In our country conservation has never been taken seriously. The builder mafia has demolished most of the beautiful heritage buildings all over Pakistan and unfortunately our official institutions IAP, PCATP and Conservation department /institutions have done nothing to save the heritage of Pakistan. How can the situation change?

YC: Our historical buildings in Karachi by the builders, they were in Lahore, but the buildings located on the Mall Road were saved when The Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985 was enforced. Currently, there is an ongoing project the Walled City Sustainable Development Project, confined to the Walled city, with the hope that it will be replicated in other cities of Pakistan.

IAP, PCATP can only get involved in heritage issues if requested by ICOMOS Pakistan. ICOMOS Pakistan, is also responsible for confusion of qualified and unqualified conservation architects.

Prof. Dr. Anila Naeem is the General Secretary of ICOMOS, additionally she is the co-Dean, of Department of Architecture, NED Karachi. She has had rigorous training in Conservation of Monuments and Sites at METU, is well aware of what specialization and equipment required to establish a Department of Conservation. Dr Naeem is in a position to change the current situation.

She has the power to be selective only allowing trained conservationist ICOMOS membership and set up a post graduation Department of Conservation at NED .

AT: How many qualified conservationists are there in Pakistan and why are those not qualified looking after our heritage. What is your personal view on this important issue?

YC: To the best of knowledge there only three qualified conservationists, Dr. Anila Naeem. Sajjad Kauser and myself. However any architect and engineer can restore or conserve British period building on-wards as they have all the required knowledge to do it.

Without any post-graduation program in any of the universities, only three qualified architects, un-qualified architect will be involved. It has happened in other countries, before the set up conservation programs and laboratories.

AT: Do you think Conservation should be taught as a subject in schools of architecture in Pakistan? In what manner and to what extent should it be incorporated in the curriculum?

YC: Only basic building chemistry should be thought at the under-graduation architecture. This course is taught in most architecture departments around the world.

AT: As an Educator, what were your contributions?

YC: Basically, I taught architecture and design studio at Dawood College. In Turkey Bilkent University I focused on Furniture History and developed a complete course on the subject. In NCA, Lahore, I devised a new curriculum for Urban Planning for fourth year students with the collaboration of Anthropologists, Structural Engineers, Urban Planners, Architects and Environmentalists as it deals with an interdisciplinary subject. Urban Planning can be successful through collective efforts of diverse Professionals rather than individualistic approach by Architects only.

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