In-depth | Architecture

The Kosovar scientist at the cutting edge of architecture

By - 21.07.2021

Dea Luma is leading the way in Japan’s emerging neuroarchitecture field.

Imagine you are just waking up from anesthesia after surgery. You open your eyes in a state of confusion and you start taking in your surroundings. What are the first things you see, and how do they make you feel? 

Does a cool, unfeeling light bulb hang clinically from a low ceiling, so bright that it burns your eyes, adding to the disorientation and perhaps making you feel anxious? Or maybe you find yourself in a spacey, naturally lit room with subtle wood detailing on the walls, as the shadow of a tree’s branches sways to the rhythm of the breeze outside.

Soon enough a caretaker’s face might enter your field of vision and the physical symptoms you might be having will turn your attention inwards — nevertheless the way you experience those initial moments of coming round has a role to play in your recovery. 

Knowing this, don’t you wish that someone was laying the groundwork that in the future might inform those in charge wanting to make similar experiences as comfortable as possible? Rest assured (pun unintended), someone is on it, or will be soon enough. 

Dea Luma is one of the world’s leading neuroarchitects and is currently heading up a brand new neuroarchitecture lab at the University of Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Dea Luma.

Dea Luma, a Prishtina-raised scientist in her early 30s, is the person entrusted with establishing the University of Tokyo’s neuroarchitecture laboratory, a multidisciplinary area of research focusing on the brain and the human experience of architecture. Given that we spend most of our time indoors, the newly-established lab is set to find out ways in which architectural design impacts us, its users.

Luma was the first person to complete PhD studies in Neuroarchitecture at the prestigious University of Tokyo’s Department of Architecture, and the university found her pioneering work compelling enough to establish a whole new paradigm in architecture, one that focuses on the wellbeing of users and promotes evidence-based design to that end. 

The assistant professor now spends a good part of her days designing and conducting experiments in her lab, surrounded by research subjects wearing futuristic-looking headsets that measure their brain waves as they sit in front of screens showing different architectural design characteristics. At other times she can be found teaching the university’s first neuroarchitecture master’s class, or exchanging specialized knowledge with fellow scientists. 

The brains behind fresh design

Part of Luma’s practical experience came through a period working at the Center for Advanced Intelligence at the renowned Japanese research institute RIKEN, where she studied the impact of architectural design on Alzheimer’s patients through brain wave measurements. 

“If you put an Alzheimer’s patient in an environment that is a copy-paste of the environment where they grew up, it has been proven there’s a likelihood that some neurons will fire and some lost memories will be recreated,” she says, describing an aspect of Reminiscence Therapy, which uses the senses to help patients with cognitive diseases to revisit moments from their past. 

Another way is through music, as shown in a viral video of a former ballerina with Alzheimer’s who starts to dance when listening to music from Swan Lake. 

Although Luma is quick to explain that this is just one element of neuroarchitecture studies and that in general she conducts research in other types of premises that are not necessarily related to medicine, she acknowledges that to others, this portion might be the most interesting or with the most perceived potential.

“A tendency that I notice when I talk about this topic is that I’m always asked about hospitals because they are a very sensitive point where the experience of the patient is very important,” she says, recalling inquiries from lay people in public events and from other professionals. “[It’s] ‘How can we apply this in the hospital?’ ‘How can we improve the user experience in post-op?’ And, ‘How can that environment be healing for a patient and for those waiting long hours in the waiting room?’”

Such considerations are not necessarily new, with various architectural movements over time having made efforts to adapt architectural design to users’ needs. An epitome of this in terms of medicine dates back to the early 20th century, when architects began designing health facilities — such as the Paimio Sanatorium in Finland — that would themselves function as a medical instrument at a time when tuberculosis was raging. The choices of light sources, color schemes, heating and other design elements were all purposefully curated to foster recovery. 

“Although there have been many stages where hospitals have been researched in particular, there were moments when some things were left aside,” Luma says, pointing out that the big development brought by neuroarchitecture is the scientific, evidence-based approach.

The relatively new field of neuroarchitecture has introduced a more scientific approach to long-established elements of architecture. Image courtesy of Dea Luma.

Naturally the flow of the conversation turns toward the potential implications of COVID-19 as the current era’s pressing health issue.

Luma mentions ongoing discussions in the architecture community about certain architectural characteristics that might be necessary to let go of, and others that might be picked up or adapted post-pandemic. These involve practical considerations such as how to design collective spaces with improved ventilation and features that enable physical distancing when required, as well as psychological considerations such as creating indoor spaces that make people feel safe.

However, she’s adamant that long-term solutions are required to improve indoor environments regardless of COVID-19.

“It’s important — with or without COVID — to understand the impact of indoor environments on us; then [the results] will provide solutions to issues like COVID and to others that we might not know about yet.”

From Kosovo to Tokyo

A considerable chunk of the potential Luma is fulfilling today is homegrown in one of Prishtina’s central neighborhoods. 

As a young girl she spent her summer days divided between playing outside with friends, reading, drawing and practicing her chosen instrument of violin. In the winters she remembers sledding in the hilly streets of the city with makeshift sleds and skis “and whatnot.” 

As she was growing up in the ’90s, Luma was encouraged by her family to take part in a wide range of activities as well as pursuing her education. Photo courtesy of Dea Luma’s personal archive.

Despite the wider sense of insecurity during the ’90s apartheid imposed by the Serbian regime in Kosovo, she describes her childhood as largely carefree, in the safe haven of a family that nurtured her dedication to learning, while encouraging her to explore a plethora of other activities.

“For my parents it was always very important to plant a book culture and early childhood education, so when this happened for me I certainly was not aware but definitely it has been reflected since then,” she says. “The more you touch on different things, the more you understand what you like; and as a child you might not know how to make those choices but if parents are supportive or push you to do them, it’s always a great help.”

After completing school, Luma decided to study architecture at the University of Prishtina (UP). During her studies she dipped her feet in various streams of architecture and design, but didn’t yet know what she wanted to pursue further. “[At first] I liked archeology, then I started to have so much interest in cultural heritage that my bachelor’s thesis was a combination of both,” she says.

Having completed part of her senior bachelor’s year in Poland, Luma was inspired by Krakow’s underground square central museum and for her thesis she designed a museum for the archeological site of Ulpiana, where the ruins of the 2000-year-old city lie in a meadow not far from Prishtina.

Although not yet knowing what her future path in architecture would be, her early work already hinted that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be showy. 

“The proposal was so discreet that you couldn’t notice that there was architecture in such a clean environment,” she says, explaining how she worked the design of her building subtly into its natural surroundings. “[Since only a fraction of the site has been unearthed] at the ancient Ulpiana, I liked the tranquility of the field so much that I kept it.”

As part of her undergraduate thesis at the University of Prishtina, Luma designed a fresh proposal for the ancient Ulpiana archaeological site outside of Prishtina. Image courtesy of Dea Luma.

While her Ulpiana proposal — like the majority of projects conducted by architecture students at UP — remained just that, she did end up working at the Kosovo Archeological Institute for a time, alongside studying for her master’s at UP. 

As her experience grew, so did her opportunities. “I wanted to finish my master’s in order to obtain my practicing licence, but in the meantime I was looking at where, how, and it was during this time that I applied for the Japanese government scholarship,” she recalls.

When she learnt that her scholarship application had been successful at the beginning of 2016, she knew an executive decision had to be made: whether to begin practicing after securing her upcoming license or whether to pursue a doctorate. “I decided on a doctorate — I don’t know what the moment was, but maybe because I was always excited to specialize in one field and to be an expert in something rather than a [Jane-of-all-trades],” she says.

So she packed her bags and headed to Japan where she got to work, studying up to 15-16 hours a day for months to prepare for the entrance exam at the University of Tokyo, the country’s leading university and one of the top educational establishments in the world. The scholarship awarded by the Japanese government to international students consists of financial coverage, but prospective grantees must undergo the same tests as Japanese students to enter university, and with no priority. 

“If you are not admitted, you have to go back,” she says. “And here, students prepare extraordinarily well for entrance exams, they start preparing in high school; every week they have certain [targeted] classes. For foreign students it is really difficult, that’s why there aren’t many — plus for Kosovo they award one scholarship each year, so it’s competitive.”

An academic liberation

All of Luma’s hard work to this point paid off and in 2017 she began her PhD. Once in, she needed to develop and focus her research ideas into a well-defined topic to explore academically in the upcoming years.  

“At first I was mainly interested in the human body, but at that moment I didn’t have an idea of how to make the connection [with architecture],” she recalls. “Then for a period of time I was interested in toxicology. There’s a condition called Sick Building Syndrome — some people get sick when they’re in some indoor environments, and there’s a specific field that studies it.”

Knowing this much about her research interests, her supervisor suggested a meeting with a team of doctors at the university’s department of medicine. The brainstorming discussions slowly led to the idea that the emerging field of neuroarchitecture could offer an avenue to study the human body’s reaction to architecture with the methods and technology that are commonly utilized in neuroscience. 

Thinking back to her formative years, Luma says that medicine and architecture had been head-to-head in the contest for becoming her chosen field of study. “I found a way to bring them together,” she says, triumphantly. 

The sort of cooperation with colleagues across disciplines that led to narrowing down her research focus in her first year in Tokyo has been a constant throughout all subsequent stages of her work, providing much-needed impetus to persist in an innovative field while lacking virtually any kind of reference. 

“No matter which department you belong to, you can take classes in the whole university — whatever helps your research,” she says. “It’s a completely open environment and you can knock on the door of any laboratory.”

“You don’t have to fear that someone will fail you … it is more a process of growth, research and then you feel more confident to do the work.”

Luma has found this approach to learning a revelation and she believes the opportunity to continue exploring and questioning is academically liberating.

“It’s interesting that the most difficult part of this university is to get in,” she explains. “Then once inside it becomes much more, I don’t want to say easy, but … you don’t have to fear that someone will fail you in an exam — of course it happens sometimes but it is more a process of growth, research and then you feel more confident to do the work.”

Looking back to her years of study at the University of Prishtina, and considering the many barriers that students face throughout the years inside the higher education system — from limited physical and human resources to disproportionate testing standards compared to unselective entry requirements — she highlights the stark contrast.

“At first I didn’t see it [as constraining] in Prishtina, but after I experienced this other way where the filtering is done in the beginning and then you work with the students who are accepted in an equal manner, to me it seems unfair [to do it the other way around],” she says. “Perhaps not all students need to excel in everything — some are better in construction, some in design — and different pathways could be created where each could develop themselves; that would have been much better than having a general system where not everyone finds themselves and then they fail.”

Having benefited from the Japanese education system herself during the course of her recently completed PhD, she is now helping to offer similar opportunities to the next generation of students as head of the new neuroarchitecture lab. 

Since the start of the current academic year in Japan in the spring, Luma has been working with master’s students who are taking advantage of the new neuroarchitecture class on the curriculum. 

Being able to share knowledge in this way and to hear new, different ideas from students has been refreshing for her. “There are about eight to 10 students per studio, so that we can work up close with each one,” she says. “They are curious and a little unsure how it will go, but they are also very excited.”

Shifting the design paradigm

Despite being the senior pro in the room these days, a similar sense of excitement is obvious in Luma herself when she describes her own research.

The experiments conducted in her lab generally explore users’ reactions to architecture in two ways: by measuring brain waves to gauge neurological responses and through questionnaires. 

“We noticed that there’s a gap between what the person says about [their reactions] and what their brain says about them,” she explains. “That has been very interesting and has confirmed that it is important to include another dimension in measurements because a person cannot always express their feelings precisely through a questionnaire.”

One finding from these experiments is that users of architecture who are not architects respond differently to those who are, in various ways. “We noticed that architects were very quick to react, needing perhaps one second or two, while those who were not architects took much longer, up to 14 seconds, until they evaluated [an architectural characteristic] — until they thought about what they liked or didn’t like.”

“In the long run it will present a shift in the design paradigm and design thinking — architecture will not be the same.”

Until recently, the lab team conducted experiments using a device that measures brain waves in the prefrontal cortex. But in May they began moving to a more sophisticated measurement system after they took hold of a new device that offers a view of the whole brain. 

“[The prefrontal cortex] is implicated more in perception and decision making, while now we’ll have a broader idea of the visual cortex, which is behind, and other characteristics of all parts of the brain,” she explains. “It gives us many times more information about how each part of the brain reacts to the environment.”

Amid technical explanations and the general caution when it comes to big claims that is typical of scientists, Luma is keen to emphasize that she keeps the users of architecture at the front and center of her research efforts.

“This is also a part of science, that before it comes to the process of launching something [the findings] need to be validated several times, including by other researchers, so it takes time,” she says, almost apologetically. “But the good thing is that in the long run it will present a shift in the design paradigm and design thinking — architecture will not be the same.”

Working out the future

Five years after she moved halfway across the globe to Japan, Luma is settled in her new home. 

Following the inevitable culture shock at first, she credits her curious attitude and a lack of expectations or preconceptions for a relatively easy immersion into the culture, and she believes some of her innate traits have naturally been compatible with some common ways of behaving in Japanese society. 

“Even before I came to Japan I wanted to be on time and it made me upset when my friends were late, so when I came here and everything was punctual to the second, for me it was an extraordinary feeling and it helped me develop [a sense for it] even more,” she says. “Then [in Kosovo], perhaps I was inherently dedicated to work [but on occasions I was influenced by friends] and I let it go, ‘They’re going out, so I’m going out too.’ Then I came here and everyone was working — it felt good.”

Despite all the challenges, she still exudes hope about the possibilities for turning some things around in her home city.

However well the working culture suited Luma in Tokyo, she admits it also has a much darker side. The problems with the long working hours that are widespread in Japan weren’t as obvious to her while she was still studying and had a certain degree of flexibility with her schedule, but since she’s started to work full time it’s become another challenge to navigate.

“Work starts at 10 a.m. and most people work until 10 p.m.; some even work until the last train, which is at midnight,” she says. “It doesn’t affect me directly, because I try to keep some sort of balance myself, but it is a big problem to be a black sheep and to be different.”

In fact, if there’s one thing that might persuade her to leave Tokyo — a “deal breaker,” as she calls it — it is the culture of overworking. “Of all the good things that Japan has — good work and professionalism, technological and economic achievements — this is the part that even though they take pride in it, for the way I grew up and the way I see life, I don’t want to keep doing it for a long time,” she says.

But any potential future move back to the city in which she grew up would present other obstacles and would require another kind of adaptation. “For the last five years, each time I’ve returned to Prishtina I’ve found it worse and worse,” she says, referring to the rapid and often chaotic urban development that has characterized Kosovo’s capital over the past two decades amidst widespread allegations of corruption, mismanagement and disregard for citizens. 

Despite all the challenges, she still exudes hope about the possibilities for turning some things around in her home city. “It’s likely that with a rethinking, a reorganization, a re-planning, there may be at least some parts of it left intact, or new parts that are expected to expand the city horizontally,” she says.

Asked whether she thinks her study of neuroarchitecture could be put to good use in Kosovo’s capital, her answer is full of promise. “Why not? Prishtina could become an example of how a new, pioneering way can be integrated into the consideration of architecture and urbanism,” she says. “I would definitely be excited to become part of any group that were to explore or even propose new ways to organize the urban aspect of Prishtina.”

Feature image: Anton Kerezov.

This article is part of the Human Rightivism project, which is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), implemented by the Community Development Fund through its Human Rightivism Program. The author’s views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

  • 05 Aug 2021 - 13:17 | IR:

    Wow ! I am passionate about both architecture and neuroscience. This article made me discovery that there is a field that links both. Thank you for covering this topic ! My best wishes to the author and to Dea Luma.

  • 22 Jul 2021 - 20:24 | Noname:

    Really good article and enjoyed reading it. I hope to read more like this in the future. Best regards and lot of success to Dea.

  • 21 Jul 2021 - 10:43 | Clara M Halliday:

    Tringe, Congratulations on an interesting, well written article. I am so impressed with your education. It has been a while since I knew you when you were going to school here in Illinois. I admire you so much. So proud of you. Take care and please stay in touch. Clara (aunt of the Romano family).

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