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  • Writer's pictureArchontia Manolakelli

Prospect-Refuge Theory

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

I was recently at a BA open review at the Manchester School of Architecture where one of the students was discussing their project concept around framing the environment. The presentation sparked a short discussion about the use of prospect and refuge in architectural design, for which I didn’t actually have a comprehensive visual reference to share. So, this short article will discuss Appleton’s prospect-refuge theory and what it entails for architectural, and more widely, spatial design.


Prospect-refuge theory example: protected balcony with subtle lights, comfortable seating and plants.

Photo by Spacejoy onUnsplash


Mini overview


Theory: Prospect-refuge Theory

Theorist: Jay Appleton

Original Publication Title: "The Experience of Landscape"

Original Publication Date: 1975

Journal: Landscape Research

Field of Origin: Geography

Schools of thought: Evolutionary biology, Aesthetics, Anthropology, Phenomenology

Topic/Area: Environmental Perception, Environmental Preference

Key Concepts: Prospect, Refuge, Safety


Background.


Jay Appleton (1919 – 2015), was a Geographer and Academic at the University of Hull in the UK. He is known for his work on spatial experience, aesthetics and environmental perception, most notably his prospect-refuge theory which was outlined in “The Experience of Landscape” in 1975 (Houghton-Moss, 2015). His theory proposes that humans are naturally drawn to spaces that give them opportunities to respond to their needs for reviewing their surrounding environment for potential opportunities (prospect), without being visible (refuge), something that creates a sense of safety (Appleton, 1975, 1984). In short, we are drawn to spaces that provide both clear views of the environment and a sense of enclosure (Dosen & Ostwald, 2016). It is argued that this stems from evolutionary processes, where humans as predators in primal environments had to be able to see their prey without giving away their location or being seen by other predators.

Prospect: The ability to observe opportunities or foresee dangers within the environment

The common aspect across environments that most closely relate to the concept of “prospect” is the ability to observe from a distance. Examples include:

  • Elevated locations such as mountains and hill tops

  • Locations that allow for unobstructed views such as plains and valleys

Refuge: The ability to hide or remain concealed from danger

Environments that relate to the concept of “refuge” tend to create safe spaces to retreat to if there is a sign of danger or a requirement to rest and recharge without being interrupted. Examples include:

  • Semi-enclosed natural formations such as caves

  • Areas that provide opportunities for shelter and concealment such as large rock formations and canopies

Spaces that create opportunities for both are identified as "ideal" and commonly preferred locations. Due to the strong connection that is described between behaviour and place, the theory has been used to explain common behaviours such as preferences for seats next to large windows, away from tables at the central areas of restaurants, or the comfort of alcoves and narrow streets in historic cities.


Applications of Prospect-Refuge theory for spatial design.


The clarity of this theory and the importance it places on primary aspects of experience in architectural space; namely views, and partial framing or enclosure, make it popular across design disciplines including architecture and interior design. Although it is highly unlikely to be chased by wild animals for most of us who live in cities, spaces that support the utility of both prospect and refuge are easy to come across in our day-to-day life:

  • Elevated locations such as viewing platforms, observatories and watch towers

  • Protected spaces such as porches and balconies

  • Enclosed or semi-enclosed interior spaces with views out such as booths and rooms with large windows

These characteristics of the environment are popular both for private property (e.g. homes with balconies and floor to ceiling windows) and more widely for outdoor settings and spaces for recreation. Ruddell & Hammitt (1987) researched people’s choice for edge environments, both as physical park settings and as a visual component during sightseeing experiences, following the well researched preferences of other species for “edge habitats''. The team found that edge environments with a high degree of refuge that was visually evident were preferred, however the theory only partially addressed why different individuals prefer these types of environments.


Theory expansions


Hildebrand (1999) added four additional spatio-cognitive elements to the standard definition of prospect-refuge, following discussions between researchers in architecture and design, that are aligned with Kaplan’s (1989) information theory framework. These elements include mystery, complexity, enticement and illumination; concepts that can also be observed in Kellert & Calabrese’s (2015) principles of biophilic design under slightly different descriptive terms - if you would like to learn more about biophilic design, please refer to the following article for a brief overview:


Critical review & Empirical support.


Despite the popularity of the theory, empirical evidence has led to highly inconsistent results. Dosen & Ostwald (2016) who did a meta-analysis of relevant findings from thirty four quantitative studies on environmental preferences, cite a number of examples across fields including environmental psychology, architecture and urban design, that both support the theory and highlight no significant connections between prospect-refuge (as well as further concepts in the expanded version of the theory), and spatial preferences. The paper concludes that this is likely due to the impact of the specific context on the general findings that determines the outlined effect and outcomes. The authors go on to highlight that even though this theory is heavily referenced in architecture and interior design, the majority of studies focus on natural environments, rather than interior or urban settings, making its use in this context unreliable. The following example describes this more clearly:


“[T]he benefits of a close visual connection to nature and of inhabiting a space that offers both an open area for outlook and a more private area for being hidden, have been broadly supported by past research in natural settings. However, the same spatio-visual configuration (the same volume of outlook and enclosure) in an interior overlooking a city skyline, will trigger a different psychological reaction.” (Dosen & Ostwald, 2016, p.12)

This is a common challenge in the application of theories and study findings outside the intended context, especially given the complexity of physical environments and the range of factors that may affect an observed outcome; whether that is the difference between natural and urban settings, level or enclosure, nature of a view etc. In addition to this, individual factors such as age, gender as well as cultural significance of different elements of an environment may affect how it is perceived or selected. Therefore it is important to remember that this theory alone, cannot reliably explain an observed behaviour nor determine an expected outcome.


Conclusions.


The prospect and refuge theory is well-known within the design fields for its intuitive and clear nature that is applicable to the realm of design. The original theory aims to describe why certain environments feel safer and more desirable through the concepts of prospect; the opportunity to observe, and refuge; the ability to hide or remain concealed. It can however be unreliable when adopted depending on the context, as original studies tend to focus on natural rather than urban environments.

 
Archontia Manolakelli profile photo

Archontia Manolakelli is an Architect and interdisciplinary Design Researcher based in Manchester, UK. Her commitment to designing more comfortable, inclusive and sustainable places using an evidence-based approach, led her to discover Environmental Psychology back in 2016. Since then she has continued to further her knowledge on this wonderful field through the study of psychology and approach to professional practice in architecture.

 

Hello. Thank you for stopping by, I hope you have enjoyed your reading! If you have any questions or feedback on this article, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on LinkedIn or via email.

 

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