A New Humanism: Part 6

Paying attention to our abiding search for refuge and prospect

Hildebrand’s research he applies to architecture the familiar landscape concepts of “refuge and prospect”; it spells out how our search for both is a response to shifting intensity among contending predilections. The basic impulse is evident early in the hide-a-ways and forts built throughout childhood. And gender, age, resources, time-of-day or season, strength or vulnerability, or urgent motivations of a “personal project” clearly can have widely differing influences on the way each of us will seek out a secure place. But he backs up a convincing case that designers can produce more welcoming, satisfying, human environments by recognizing that their publics will in fact experience them in these deep-seated, survival-based terms.


Hildebrand takes the next step, too, defining and illustrating the architectural qualities that underlie protection and a release from fear or out-of-control nature in a “refuge”.  Most important is the low height and enfolding form of a “ceiling” plane or overhanging trees.  Light levels lower than in surrounding spaces, protected openings plus mostly solid-seeming walls – often the reality of, or echoes of earth forms, color, and materials – all naturally reinforce the feeling. Then horizontal dimensions significantly smaller than those of surrounding spaces – the “cozy” inglenook, “den,” or walled gardens – and an entrance that is a succession of vestibules or buffers, elevate the retreat into a “sanctuary”.  As a prime example of combined refuge and prospect he again uses the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright with their focus on cave-like hearths and long, sheltering overhangs, combined with broad windows and projecting decks – warmth, protection, and openings out to freedom.

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Reinforcing – sometimes even replacing – the spatial sense of a safe, defensible place are symbols having other survival-based meanings, most prominently, of course, the hearth, the family’s fire that has been an integral part of human evolution and survival.  The control of this once dangerous natural enemy – this early mastery of the natural environment and an enormous increase in available energy – was and still is an element of human “fitness”. Affecting all the senses in the circle of light and warmth, with the scent and promise of food, the fire seems almost alive like another companion, an ally with awesome power. While today the symbol may be reduced to a gas-fired log, candlelight, fire pit or grill, the need for an open flame and sharing a fire seems taken for granted. And we still recognize controlled fire as a powerful symbol of eternal life and, uncontrolled, as a symbol of eternal death.  In other words, these flames that dispel the dark still stir life and death responses embedded in human nature; we expect them and take pleasure when we find them in our built environments.

Refuge in alliances 

Equally elemental seem to be the symbols of genetic “blood” alliances – symbols that identify us as an integral member of entities larger and stronger and longer lasting than ourselves alone – families, ethnic and nationality groups, or gangs of “blood brothers”. The “home place” and property legacies, longtime family possessions and portraits, plus flags and public memorials, are in our design vocabularies at all scales as a “refuge” of reassurances. They document continuity and past victories – symbols, we believe, of “our” genes’ fitness for survival generation after generation. 

And in parallel, all across the continent we see repeated in the places we live the architecture and landscapes that symbolize the human “mastery” of this continent. They’re realized in memorials at a community’s center.  It’s part of what makes a “center” and some of our most reassuring structures are symbols of the competitive victories, selflessness in battle and the vitality of “our” place, our ideology, our people with victory columns, triumphal arches, the lion images in Venice, generals on horseback, Lenin’s tomb. These are not personal or sentimental gestures.  Communities unite to assemble and sacrifice significant resources to tell these survival stories about themselves.

More elemental still, are the reassuring symbols of “our” faith that has put us under the protection of supernatural power – the skyline of church steeples, a cathedral dome, temple complexes, hallowed ground, and the family chapel or shrine for the gods of the house. This sense of refuge in a faith often exceeds the physical refuge offered by whatever else we may have built.


An “outlook” – especially one where we can see without being seen – is an integral part of a secure refuge. Hildebrand again outlines the ideal. The architectural forms range from walls of glass to a narrow arc of window, combined with easy access outdoors into a broader view – a lawn or terrace or balcony, especially one projected or elevated to enlarge the prospect.  Even a slight elevation on the land or in a room – and, of course, a mountain summit – draws us to it.


"The village of Brantes on Mont Ventoux in France”

The architectural aperture of the outlook frames the prospect experience, and the door or window is an event that refocuses attention. A vertical opening that extends down near the floor feels like a door, an invitation – an imagined movement – out into the scene. You feel “there”. Clear continuity into the out-of-doors of the ceiling, wall, and especially the ground plane do the same.  In contrast, a windowsill level at waist height feels both protective and confining. Separation is dramatized. You feel more an “observer”, seeing the prospect as a picture. In businesses and public buildings the prospect may also be reversed. The transparency orients and welcomes strangers into a predictable and expressive interior.

In any case, while all the senses are alerted, the eyes tend to take over, searching for potential pathways and destinations. The pleasures in finding them are embedded in the rich design vocabularies of gardens and urban places, and also in the value we place on the content of the prospect.  Naturally these all depend on feelings that matter most at the moment. We will pay well for a prospect that reinforces the sense of being in a safe refuge at sunset when the world turns dark – or the confidence and serenity induced by a prospect that “commands” a defensive perimeter or a fertile landscape in a valley or rolling hills, or the lights of “my” city or neighborhood.  And it’s likely to be the same impulse that attaches us to the “prospect” in computer and TV screens – the constant connection, the sense of belonging to the larger society’s winners-heroes-stars, combined with a secure lookout over the globe and out into the universe.

These ideas about predilections that shape architecture can be applied equally effectively to cities, land and streetscapes, of course.  In practice, they are woven together with such other evolved influences on “home” selection and design as social cohesion, economy of means, status in a hierarchy, and individual associations of built forms with feelings about people, ideas and the natural world.  Those dimensions are explored further in later chapters, but first, he has other interesting, important ideas that I want to outline and expand on.

Exploration and peril

Hildebrand poses exploration-and-peril as a second pair of innate predilections that underlie “architectural pleasure”. He starts by pointing out that the “drive to seek knowledge has been…one of the key factors, perhaps the key factor, in our evolutionary success.” In practice that has meant a compulsion to explore, to learn more, to penetrate into mysteries, and to follow the promise of uncovering useful information in the territory up ahead. Citing the pleasures of following winding pathways, the urge to discover what’s hidden around-the-bend, and the enticement of a partially seen, brightly lit scene, he traces these powerful curiosities through architectural vocabularies found across cultures – linked courtyards, curved and layered spaces, framed vistas, manipulated light, the mystery of shadows, and orchestrated movement along promenades with links from landmark to landmark or to hidden rewards. One whole spectrum of the pleasures we give ourselves in recreation, entertainment or as tourists – in travels or trails, hill towns or a shopping street – derive from that primal drive to learn by exploring. Whether or not designers enhance the experience by “orchestrating” the movement, the impulse remains, and our response to a place tends to be boredom if it’s not fulfilled in some way. We’re curious. We’re “predators”. And we want to “hunt”. 


"Refuge, prospect and a base for exploration – Portofino on the Ligurian coast of Italy”

Then Hildebrand speculates, too, that our evolutionary success was enhanced by a predilection to seek out, and overcome “perils” – risky, life-threatening challenges that seem to promise exceptional rewards. They start with our innate exploratory optimism – overestimating benefits and underestimating costs. And in the end the pleasure comes from experiencing the emotional rush of self-esteem – a body chemistry earned by facing up to danger, mastering fear, and exercising strength, courage, and competence to “win”. He traces out then how this emotional response is deliberately evoked in both architecture and garden design vocabularies, particularly overcoming the primal fear-of-falling and the resulting thrill of being in high places – prospects – balconies, overhanging decks, bridges, cliffs, treetops, and in our imagination, soaring forms and spaces.

Naturally, each of us has different kinds and different levels of imperatives to explore and take risks; these tend to peak in our early years and decline with age. Yet, as with “refuge and prospect”, behind the personal and cultural structures in our minds, there seems to be that underlying predilection to find the excitement, the pleasure of adventure, making it as safe as “possible,” but taking the risk. The financial, gaming, recreation and entertainment industries are masters of creating the experiences that exploit it.

Our next post will examine the compelling search for orientation, order and control, plus the creative imagination that carves out a unique niche for us in every ecosystem we invade. 

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This is the sixth of a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called A New Humanism: in architecture, landscapes, and urban design. They’re about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing.

Albrecht Pichler, who drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

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