Prospect-Refuge Theory

In his 1975 book The Experience of Landscape, geographer-poet Jay Appleton proposed a theory for why we perceive certain landscapes as beautiful and others as bleak. After a period of sprawling research exploring the occurrence of landscapes in art and science, he developed a system for quantifying the lived experience of landscape

Jay Appleton began with a ‘Habitat Theory’, which examined animal responses to their surroundings, and extended that to humans through our unique ability to understand symbols. He suggests that as we developed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors we came to understand previously-real threatening and comforting aspects of the landscape symbolically. Storm clouds, chasms and shadowy places were still felt to be potentially dangerous, though those dangers might no longer be directly experienced in the same way. He concluded that most people have an “inborn desire” for environments that allow the capacity to observe without being seen – to assess threats from a place of safety. He called this the ‘Prospect-Refuge Theory’.

Appleton recognised that there is no direct language for talking about the emotion of a place. We may describe a landscape as making us feel “happiness” or “foreboding”, “grief” or “ecstasy”, but the feeling of those words is very distant from the form of a landscape in a way that it wouldn’t be from the form of a situation involving a person. We are, he says, “using a second-hand terminology to describe a relationship which we do not properly understand”.

To try to narrow this distance he developed a series of objective measures that might allow us to evaluate a landscape in this way. Prospects, for example, may be Direct or Indirect (deflected, removed or offset in some way). Direct Prospects are subdivided into Panoramas – Simple or Interrupted – and Vistas, which can be Simple, Horizontal or through Peepholes. Panoramas and Vistas may be open or closed and have varying lengths of “fetch” (how far you can see). There is a similar classification system for Refuges, Hazards and Surfaces. With these tools, Appleton hoped to bridge the gap between the scientific and artistic studies of the outdoors to create a new theory of landscape aesthetics that was reliable and consistent while also accounting for our subconscious emotional response to a setting.

Appleton died last month, but this idea is his enduring legacy. As a tribute, I thought I’d use the Prospect-Refuge Theory to analyse the hundred most popular, copyright-free images of landscapes on Flickr to see if there are any patterns to the landscapes we choose to photograph.

I began by overlaying the images on top of one another, to see if any general patterns would emerge. I lined up the horizons and made the images the same width but otherwise left the images untouched.

The result was not hugely elucidating. It seemed to show that we enjoy barren, foggy, hell-scapes, which is probably untrue. There were some slight patterns emerging though - the sky is blue, the land is quite green, a darkening at either side of the image sloping down towards the centre of the horizon suggests we like landscapes framed by hills…

I made a spreadsheet and recorded the number of Appleton’s symbols present in each image. The most popular was a Refuge of vegetation - forests, bushes, plantations. 66% of the images contained enough vegetation to hide in. Also popular (56%) was a Secondary Vantage Point - somewhere we could get to in order to see further. The least popular, strangely, was ships. None of the images contained a boat, even though 21% contained enough water to hold one. Initially I was surprised, but then I imagined the image below if there was a boat on the water and it felt very different to me, as though the boat claimed some sort of ownership of the scene.

Most tellingly, 91% of the images included some form of refuge, 99% contained some symbol of Prospect, and 96% included symbols of both. Assuming we would only choose to photograph landscapes with some aesthetic value, this seemed to support Appleton’s ideas.

Finally, I wanted to find which of these images would be considered most and least attractive by this metric. I added together the total number of different types of Prospect and Refuge symbols in each image, subtracted the number of Hazards, then ordered the images by the result.

In the picture with the lowest score, we are fenced in on a road to nowhere. We stick out against the uniform crop plants around us, unsure of where we’re going. It’s getting late and it’s about to rain.

In the top-ranked photo, we stand proud on a verdant alpine meadow, commanding our surroundings. Ahead of us are better vantage points. It’s a calm day and we have time. If we wish to go higher, there are safe routes through trees and behind rocks. A gentle slope would deliver us to the lowlands, again sheltered by forest.

Assessing a hundred images in this way was an interesting exercise. Looking past the aesthetic value of the photograph as an object makes us place ourselves in the scene as pioneer, fugitive, castaway, bandit-king to ask, “what is it I feel about this place, and why?” The Prospect-Refuge Theory offers the beginning of an answer to this.

In the conclusion to the book, Appleton borrows a musical analogy and describes himself as playing a bridge passage on a solo instrument, “leading the imagination onwards into the next movement in which the full orchestra must be involved”. Since its publication, the tools have been employed to analyse children’s paintings, map crime in the city, build better university campuses, determine preferred tree shapes, improve light distribution in dynamic street lighting etc. The broad application of these methods surely fits his stated intention of engaging specialists from many different fields and is a tribute to the breadth of scope of his work, bringing together art and science through our shared appreciation of landscape.

Words by contributing editor Guy Lochhead