In 1975 English geographer Jay Appleton published The Experience of Landscape, in which he proposed the prospect-refuge theory of human aesthetics. The theory states that taste in art is 'an acquired preference for particular methods of satisfying inborn desires.' The two desires are for opportunity (prospect) and safety (refuge). Tracing these two desires gives us a means of understanding successful and enduring aesthetics, and the ability to predict the same.

What it predicts
The theory predicts that humans are attracted to art and circumstances that have:

  • broad, unoccluded vistas
  • visible places for easy refuge (a copse of trees, caves)
  • water
  • plants
  • a smattering of prey species
It further predicted that we should like spaces when:
  • we are at the edge, such that our back is protected (rather than the middle where we are most exposed)
  • we are covered, rather than open to the sky
In short, we should like everything that is optimal for survival and reproduction in the savannah. The theory says that we respond to such things in art subconsciously, and that individuals attracted to such circumstances would have stood a better chance of survival by choosing to spend time in such places. Art that puts the viewer in between prospect-dominant and refuge-dominant areas will be most appealing.

The book itself has been criticized for its repetitiveness, seeking to "prove" the theory by simply applying it again and again to landscape paintings throughout art history. It doesn't draw on much other substantiation. Nevertheless, it brought together art and science in a way that was quite new at the time. The theory has also been broadly criticized by purists and aesthetes rejecting any role of science in the arts, but no real contrary evidence has been provided.

Three years after the book's publication, art critic Ronald Paulson held a symposium at Yale University that was attended by some forty art historians, literary critics, philosophers, &c., from all over the USA, specifically to discuss the theory. This helped to popularize it across diverse disciplines, at least in the States.

In 1991 Grant Hildebrand popularized the theory amongst architecture with the publication of The Wright Space: Patterns and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses, which, as you might guess from the title, interpreted Wright's work and popularity in these terms. Additionally, Hildebrand significantly extended the theory by deriving a few more principles from the desires.

  • The love of complexity arose from prospect, as complexity invites exploration and promises opportunity. He identified that mystery is tied to complexity. In architecture this bears out as small, dark spaces.
  • The love of order arose from refuge, with our need to control as much as possible in the environment. Architects meet this need with openness, expanse, and brightness.
Can the theory be substantiated?
Not entirely. It has been shown to be demonstrably true of animals in the wild, but there have been no conclusive studies proving the theory is active in human aesthetics. Some parallel theories do seem to obliquely support it. With their publication of The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan came to prospect-refuge conclusions, but in the field of environmental psychology and working spaces. In 1992 J.L. Nasar and B. Fisher published a theory of nearly identical arguments in their paper Fear of crime in relation to 3 exterior site features: Prospect, refuge and escape, but in the context of architecture and crime prevention. And the Russian artists Komar and Melamid, in conducting their Most Wanted Paintings series, commissioned polls asking citizens about their aesthetic preferences, and the results wholly support Appleton's predictions.

Perhaps, most importantly, Is it of any use?
Pragmatically, landscape architecture and landscape design has benefited quite directly, as it's had a major impact on the field, and both the clients and critics seem to be pleased. For example, Richard Haag, a Seattle landscape architect, designed a series of gardens for the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, which he described as 'the ultimate distillation of Prospect-Refuge Theory.' In 1986 that project earned him the President's Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

What about those of us who aren't landscape architects? Well, maybe if you're a boho artist wondering why your ultra-hip edgy post-post-modernism isn't paying bank, this might provide some explanation, and help you justify your secret love of Turner.

And I guess for the same reasons it might help the rest of us, seeking to understand the mechanics of others' opinions (or, say, upvotes) as well as our own aesthetic instincts. This helps either justify it (and bask in its uncarved block glory), or in naming it, to gain mastery of it, to be more examined and deliberate in our tastes.


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