Comparing Different Approaches to Testing Prospect-Refuge Theory

    Dosen, Annemarie S.
    Michael J Ostwald,
    Architecture and the environment


In 1975 Jay Appleton theorised that certain environmental conditions allow people to feel safe and secure, by providing opportunities to hide (refuge) and to observe (prospect). This proposition, which has since become known as prospect-refuge theory, has been widely debated in a range of fields and has found an enduring place in environmental psychology. The theory has also been applied by art historians and philosophers and it became popular in architecture when Grant Hildebrand (1991) demonstrated its relevance to Frank Lloyd Wright&sup1 s housing design. Hildebrand used this theory to argue that certain spatial qualities including enclosure, light and view are essential for a liveable space. He expanded the theory by adding spatial and formal complexity and order as factors shaping architectural design. Since that time designers and critics have repeatedly made reference to prospect and refuge theory and some architects, notably including Alvar Aalto, Glenn Murcutt, Frank Lloyd Wright and Peter Zumthor, have become strongly associated with this theory. However, despite its recurring presence in architectural design and theory, there is only limited empirical evidence of its efficacy. One reason for this lack of evidence relates to the problems of testing prospect-refuge theory and lack of consistency across the range of tests used in the past. This paper analyses twenty-eight separate attempts, over a twenty-eight year period, to test the validity of prospect-refuge theory. The paper is not explicitly concerned with these results of these tests, but rather with the methods that have been used. Thus, the research compares the strengths and weaknesses of different interview, survey and observation techniques, which rely on a range of media (from VR simulations and photomontages to sketches) and on different evaluation strategies. These studies are categorised and compared, before they are in turn assessed for their viability for supporting architectural claims about prospect-refuge theory. This analysis, the first of its type in architecture, provides a critical overview of how this theory has been tested in the past, while providing advice on how it might be tested in the future.

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