The ape in us seeks refuges and prospects

“It is early one Sunday morning at the beginning of March, … and we are taking a walk in the forest…We approach a forest glade….We now tread more slowly and more carefully. Before we break through the last bushes and out of cover on to the free expanse of the meadow, we do what all wild animals and all good naturalists, wild boars, leopards, hunters and zoologists would do under similar circumstances: we reconnoiter, seeking, before we leave our cover, to gain from it the advantage which it can offer alike to hunter and hunted—namely to see without being seen.”

—Konrad Lorenz

Olmsted's tunnel entries into Prospect Park, such as Endale Arch shown here, form refuges with views down the Long Meadow. (Photo from OpenSpacesFengShui.com.)

Olmsted’s tunnel entries into Prospect Park, such as Endale Arch shown here, form refuges with views down the Long Meadow. (Photo from OpenSpacesFengShui.com.)

Jay Appleton in The Experience of Landscape called places where we can see and not be seen refuges with prospects. He found prospects linked to refuges in a wide range of human products—architecture and urban design, paintings, photography, and literature—and took that widespread bonding of hideouts and lookouts as evidence of a deep-seated human need.

He might also have cited an array of designed landscape features that form this pairing, including building alcoves facing lawns and piazzas; arbors, belvederes, and bowers in gardens; exhedras at the ends of axes and allées; elevated gazebos; grottoes beside lakes and hermitages in fields, almost any portico or porch; and mounts topped by pavilions.

Appleton offered the habitat theory to explain why we instinctually prefer places that suggest protected places with views, even on sunny days with no cloud or predator in sight. We are still apparently responding to places as we did when we hunted and were hunted. The saber-toothed tiger is long gone, but we still negotiate any physical environment on the lookout for dangers and threats—as though the sudden cliff, the prowling lion, or the sociopathic gunman were around the next corner.

As a consequence, we seek places where we can observe those threats and hide from them, whether they are real or only lurking in our subconscious. We need what Lorenz, a zoologist and Nobel Laureate, described: a place where we can see and not be seen.

More specifically, a prospect is a vantage point offering an unimpeded view of some extent, being anything from a mountain top to a doorway at the edge of a city square. The length of the view in any direction is its fetch, important because, as Appleton noted, in landscapes as in paintings, the direction of maximum fetch attracts the eye strongly.

Prospects are best which provide not just long, but wide views. Besides early threat warnings, deep fetches and wide vistas help walkers with wayfinding and orientation.

Even the longest views can be further enhanced, Appleton explained, by secondary prospects, high points like hills and towers we see from the primary overlook that promise still farther views.

The best vantage points are also above their surroundings. Beyond tending to extend views, high points force oncoming threats to move uphill. Another plus is that our escape routes run downhill.

Prospect with refuge.500

Christopher Alexander called this arrangement “positive outdoor space,” in his view the strongest form of refuge.

Meanwhile, a refuge is any place we can hide, that prevents our being seen or attacked. It can be anything from the shade of a tree to a concrete bunker.

A fully fledged refuge involves a protected back, partial side enclosure, convexity, and smallness. Convexity prevents something else hiding in the space with us, and smallness minimizes visibility.

Christopher Alexander has argued that an ideal refuge is backed into a smaller space looking out onto larger spaces. A nook at the small end of a series of increasingly wider spaces telescoping outward across the landscape forms a pattern Alexander called a positive “hierarchy of open space.”

In such a place, an ogre must enter our view at a distance and directly ahead of us, while we in the shadows go unnoticed until the ogre has lumbered across the intervening distance, by which time we have slipped out the back, down the escape path.

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