Prospect and Refuge Theory: Constructing a Critical Definition for Architecture and Design

By Annemarie S. Dosen and Michael J. Ostwald.

Published by The International Journal of Design in Society

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The theory of “prospect and refuge” seeks to describe why certain environments feel secure and thereby meet basic human psychological needs. Environments that meet such needs will often provide people with the capacity to observe (prospect) without being seen (refuge). Since its original proposition in 1975, prospect-refuge theory has been discussed and debated by art historians and philosophers and it has also been put into practice by landscape designers. However, it wasn’t until 1991, when Grant Hildebrand applied this theory to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, that designers became more aware of, and interested in, this theory. One reason for this interest is that Hildebrand expanded the theory to add several additional spatial dimensions to the concept of prospect, including a love of complexity, exploration and opportunity. Hildebrand identifies that prospect and refuge may result intuitively in the work of an architect who seeks to control the manner in which open and bright spaces are framed spatially. He also applied a variation of the theory to analyse ceiling heights, the size of terraces, and the spatial complexity of a design. While prospect-refuge theory has since been widely used to interpret a range of architects’ works, relatively little evidence is available to support its application. After more than two decades of use, scholars still do not know which elements of a design shape the presence of prospect and refuge or whether they are independent factors or are mutually dependent on each other. However, one of the primary impediments to the detailed analysis and testing of prospect-refuge theory is the lack of an accepted definition. Thus, the present paper sets out to construct a critical definition of prospect and refuge theory, drawing on the body of past research that was undertaken originally in art theory and landscape design and later in architectural and interior design.

Keywords: Prospect and Refuge Theory, Habitat Preferences, Design Assessment

The International Journal of Design in Society, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp.9-24. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 296.240KB).

Annemarie S. Dosen

Lecturer, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia

Anni is a lecturer at The University of Newcastle, Australia. She has previously practiced and taught in Germany and currently teaches computational and architectural design in architecture and construction management programs. Her research interests are in particular design theories on the perception of space.

Prof. Michael J. Ostwald

Dean, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia

Professor Michael J. Ostwald is the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Newcastle, Australia and a visiting professor at RMIT University (Melbourne). He has a PhD in architectural history and theory, and a higher doctorate (DSc) in the mathematics of design. He has lectured in Asia, Europe and North America, and has written and published extensively on the relationship between architecture, philosophy, and mathematics. He is a member of the editorial boards or scientific committees of the Nexus Network Journal, Architectural Theory Review, Architectural Science Review, and Architecture Research.