Where do we draw the line between abstract and literal thinking? During my internship, this was a question raised when I presented a design to my coworkers. I was critiqued that the mentality of the design was too literal, and that in the future I should think more abstractly about the journey a person entering my building would be undertaking.
This project I presented was a renovation for an existing building into a food hall. I had few constraints and was instructed that I had “infinite money” to work with. My concept was a tour of the world starting and ending in Hagerstown, with elements of the interior being evocative of a map, including the real-world geography of the represented countries.
Where it became too literal was that every part of the building revolved around geography. It had no identity other than the elements of geography and was map-like. If I had the chance to do a revision, I would touch on aspects of the nation's cultures as well, rather than just the physical appearance of the country’s landscape and buildings.
My coworker suggested a more abstract example of incorporating the topography of the real world. Multiple rows of dining space, each one a higher elevation than the previous, could create the impression of a mountain. This would engage the building’s customers in affecting how they experience and navigate through the building, rather than simply being something to look at.
Perhaps the closest I can come to an answer to our original question, at least in an architectural sense, is to ask yourself, “does my project rely on a gimmick?” A building should be able to remain visually interesting if one were to remove anything that might seem gimmicky.
Of course, I’m sure there are cases where a building isn’t particularly gimmicky but is still literal in its design. This is not a foolproof method to ensure that every building you design is abstract in all the best ways possible, but rather something to look out for when reflecting on your work.