Creative Commons License/Flickr/nclave

In the essay “Architecture in a Simulated City,” Toyo Ito, Hon FAIA, considers the evolving relationship between digital media and the built environment. He argues that the increasingly fluid interplay between atoms and bits has led to a “simulated life” in which time and space are homogenized. “Communication without entity (communication through media) has become a necessity in our daily life,” he writes. “The communication which was once deeply rooted in an area or in a local community has lost its significance. What is thriving in our cities is based on a network of instantaneous, ephemeral, and unspecific but numerous media which deny a physical distance.”

Ito’s article was published nearly three decades ago in Oz, the journal of the College of Architecture, Planning, and Design at Kansas State University, yet it strikes a resonant chord today. As COVID-19 maintains its paralyzing hold on global society, we have all come to rely upon instantaneous, ephemeral, and ubiquitous media as our primary means of communication. Many physical places and communal gatherings we once frequented are inaccessible, and we now work, learn, and play within the isolated bubbles of our homes.

Ito had an architectural vision for these bubbles. In 1985, he and then-disciple Kazuyo Sejima designed “Pao Dwellings for Tokyo Nomad Girl,” ephemeral constructions intended to house the new urban dweller. The pao was a tent-like shelter providing minimal accommodations—a bed as well as places to dress and apply cosmetics, enjoy a snack, and connect to digital media (pao means “yurt” in Japanese). “A light metal space-frame structure, it is clad in light translucent materials that absorb the energy and information of the city while reflecting the increasingly ephemeral nature of life,” is how Brendon Carlin described the dwelling in The City as a Project.

Ito's pao
Creative Commons License/Flickr/nclave Ito's pao
The pao was designed to "absorb the energy and information of the city while reflecting the increasingly ephemeral nature of life."
Creative Commons License/Flickr/nclave The pao was designed to "absorb the energy and information of the city while reflecting the increasingly ephemeral nature of life."

Programmatically, the pao was remarkably clairvoyant. Today, many of us have transformed our bedrooms into COVID-ready information portals—sleeping, dressing, snacking, and Zooming there. Although the designs may look different, the architecture of these spaces is similarly focused on the furniture and apparatus required for such activities. Our nomadic shelters can be anywhere or nowhere, so long as there is reliable internet. We are physically and emotionally disconnected from the larger world, detached from many places that once brought meaning to our lives.

Of course, the pao were designed in response to a very different milieu. The shelters represent both an embrace and a critique of the rapid changes occurring in urban Japan during the bubble economy in the 1980s. For Ito, the surplus of material goods, combined with the proliferation of digital media, had the effect of diminishing the value of physical objects and places. Today, our inability to travel and experience places firsthand has the opposite effect of increasing their value. That said, our current Zoom-life shares much in common with Ito’s earlier vision. And perhaps this imagined future can inform what we do next.

Today, fear of Coronavirus transmission has motivated many of us to leave dense urban environments: witness the recent exodus from Manhattan. This trend has prompted urban designers to speculate about a return to models like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City proposal, with “vast expanses of low-lying private homes connected by both roads and the Internet,” as Joel Kotkin writes. This shift makes logical sense, given the CDC’s Hierarchy of Controls, which establishes “elimination” of the hazard through physical distancing as the most effective strategy against transmission.

Recent studies reveal, however, that the fear of cities is largely misplaced. The New York Health Department reports that Manhattan has not suffered as much from COVID-19 as the outer boroughs. Many super-dense Asian cities, like Singapore and Tokyo, also have much lower death rates than less dense regions. (Consider that the heavily urbanized country of Japan has a total COVID-19 death rate equivalent to the average daily death rate in the U.S.) Factors like household crowding, socioeconomic disparities, and the disregard for public health guidelines are what have accelerated viral transmission.

Axonometric of the pao
Creative Commons License/Flickr/nclave Axonometric of the pao
The design of the pao included spaces for eating and applying cosmetics
Creative Commons License/Flickr/nclave The design of the pao included spaces for eating and applying cosmetics

In fact, cities offer many advantages that rural areas lack. According to David Peters, associate professor of rural sociology at Iowa State University, “small communities and rural areas have higher risk factors, as a share of the population, than major cities do.” A significant consideration is the relative lack of healthcare providers outside urban centers, leading to greater travel distances and longer wait times for medical services. Another factor is the relative prevalence of large collective facilities like nursing homes and meatpacking plants in rural areas—places where the virus has tended to spread rapidly.

Seen from this perspective, Ito’s pao represent ideal safe zones during a pandemic. Although small, they support individual livelihoods, isolating residents from physical crowds while connecting them to robust information networks. The dwellings are intentionally designed for cities, tapping into the myriad services and extensive infrastructure available there. Given Peters’ findings, the urban pao offer a compelling antidote to the trend toward de-densification.

That said, one must recognize that the pao are as much cultural commentary as design concept. These residential pods speak to the increasing alienation and homogenization Ito witnessed in Tokyo during the latter decades of the 20th century. “What is homogenized today is society itself, and architects are vainly fighting against it,” he wrote. Sheltering communities in tiny, identical urban bubbles may not be the solution, but the idea is a timely provocation. As architecture finds its bearings after the pandemic, we might learn lessons from the technical efficacy and urban-centricity of the pao, while encouraging the kinds of diverse, contextually specific, and communal qualities Ito realized we all need.