Monday, 24 July 2023
Guest update: A view on Genius Loci from the landscape architecture industry
Hello everyone! I’m back with another ‘different’ Genius Loci book update, and another written by a guest. This one comes from Fiona Johnson, a landscape architect from Australia whom I have connected with and enjoyed conversations with since she backed Genius Loci last October. She shares the same ‘Venn diagram overlap’ of my interests, passions, and qualifications, is developing a video game, and wants to share why she thinks the book will be valuable to landscape professionals as well as those in game development. Enjoy!
I’m Dr. Fiona Johnson, a landscape architect and video game developer from Melbourne, Australia, working across practice, education, and research. I am writing this guest update for Genius Loci: A Grand Tour of Video Game Landscapes and Gardens as part of an extended conversation around the book and its themes that Rob and I have been having, and to encourage landscape design professionals to back the book and help it become a reality.
Rob and I share an agenda of seeing stronger interdisciplinary linkages developed between landscape architecture and game development. I am co-Director of Lucernal, an architectural visualisation studio working across sectors and scales including multi-residential, mixed-use, aged-care, and infrastructure projects. In the past few years, we have expanded our practice into video game development. We are currently in pre-production for our first title, Little Ruin, an ideologically-driven isometric adventure about growing up in a time of war.
Recently I was asked to give a lecture on this very subject - landscape architecture and video games - to a group of Masters students at the University of Melbourne. While on campus I visited the Dulux Gallery at the Melbourne School of Design where I had a tour of the excellent cross-cultural LA x Changemakers exhibition as part of Melbourne International Design Week. With a focus on eight award-winning landscape architectural practices from Australia and Japan, the curators used documentary filmmaking as an innovative method to document the dynamic nature of built works alongside the voice of the designer.
Reflecting somewhat on my own journey, sitting between the disciplines of landscape architecture, visualisation, and video game development, the exhibition highlighted for me the need for landscape architecture to take a more critical and creative approach when engaging with digital media and methods. I already know that Genius Loci, being written by a fully qualified landscape architect and designer in Rob, will be a valuable book that will be a great example of something bridging that gap, and adding that creative take.
The professional development of games and landscape architecture have much in common. Both are characterised by an engagement with complex systems and mechanisms. The practices share the same tools and techniques, and both game design and landscape architecture emerged as technical and creative professions at roughly the same time. However, landscape architecture as a practice and a discourse has largely ignored the place of game development and more specifically the role of designed landscapes within games. Furthermore, there is very little acknowledgement of the cultural significance of game landscapes as design precedents.
However, discussions with the next generation of landscape architects usually reveal the terms of what future practice might look like. The animation with which students spoke of video games at the end of my lecture was invigorating. It caused me to reflect on some of the best moments in the pandemic-era of design studio teaching. These often came out of discussions of landscapes from games. Students drawing on these as precedents would often present the most provocative ideas and the strongest formal design moves. These future landscape architects speak passionately of the embodied and aesthetic experiences of games as designed spaces. However, there remains a chasm between discussions of landscape design in spatial terms and the presence of video games as a contemporary expression of landscape architecture. To address an expanded notion of landscape to include digital territories, there is a growing body of work emerging in this area that is unsettling the canon.
Rob’s forthcoming book represents one such example addressing this knowledge gap. I was delighted when I discovered Genius Loci: A Grand Tour of Video Game Landscapes and Gardens as it has the potential to fill this void for designers and educators both familiar and unfamiliar with these iconic landscapes. I can imagine Genius Loci: A Grand Tour of Video Game Landscapes and Gardens sitting comfortably on the shelves of our practice libraries, next to classics such as Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s Landscape of Man.
This book is expansive in the terrains it will cover, inclusive of everything from the melancholy third landscapes of The Last of Us to the strange wilderness of Death Stranding. I am particularly heartened to see the inclusion of two particular places within the contents of the book. The first is the Citadel from Mass Effect, which I would argue is one of the most influential pieces of urban design that most landscape architects have never heard of.
The other is Shoshone National Forest from Firewatch, which is a landscape close to my heart, where design and mechanics are sublimely interwoven through space to create an emotive and compelling narrative experience.
Rob writes beautifully about games, leveraging his horticultural and landscape, and garden design background to illuminate the landscapes found within. It is wonderful when landscape architecture is described well, but it is always a kind of magic when someone can speak with skill about vegetation, gardens, and plants, too. However, it is then even rarer a thing to have video games viewed and articulated through the lens of the landscape architect. As a result, I would encourage you to share this far and wide to see that it gets fully funded - especially if you are in the landscape industry.
As a landscape architect working across both traditional architectural visualisation and game development, I am keenly aware of the liminal nature of occupying this space between industries, and I appreciate the ambition of this project. It would be wonderful indeed if in the future the broader design community could increase their literacy with games landscapes through publications such as this one.
Dr. Fiona Johnson is a Landscape Architect with a background as a practitioner, educator, and academic. She has extensive teaching experience in digital design and representation for landscape architecture and is a published writer from peer-reviewed journals to books. She is also Studio Director at Lucernal, a hybrid creative practice that explores modes of critical representation and immersive landscapes through architectural visualisation and video game development. Lucernal is currently in pre-production of its first title, Little Ruin, which is supported by VicScreen.