The Trout, the Stream, and the Letting-Be. Alvar Aalto’s Contribution to the Poetic Tradition of Architecture

Pekka Passinmäki

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


When man approaches nature technologically, there is an attempt to force nature to serve only the human needs. In the "poetic approach" the case is perfectly opposite: man tries to gain a receptive and listening attitude towards the nature. The emphasis between poetic and technological approaches has varied at different stages in history of architecture. Alvar Aalto's contribution regarding this long tradition of architecture is significant.

During the antiquities man's relation to nature was centred on nature (cosmocentric). The world (the macrocosmos) was seen as an entity organised in accordance with the laws by which also man (the microcosmos) operated. Buildings were seen as a metaphor for the divine architecture of the cosmos. The architecture of the antiquities was poetic because it represented the same order as that of the whole of reality. The church adopted the cosmology of the antiquities: medieval theology conjoined tradition of Plato and Aristotle with Christianity. Thus the tradition of poetic architecture continued also throughout the Middle Ages.

In the Modern Era man's relation to nature changed to become an anthropocentric one. Man was seen as primary and nature as secondary. In the modern thinking, as represented by, for example, Galileo, Newton and Descartes, the inherent order of reality began to lose its meaning and the attitude towards nature was based increasingly on man's rational thinking. Man began to become a subject and the world an object, which meant the defragmentation of a reality that previously had been perceived as integrated. In architecture this kind of thinking was first represented by Claude Perrault and Jacques-Nicolas-Louis Durand. The modern rationalistic and technological approach continued in the theories of functionalism and has continued to do so in large part of current postmodern architectural thinking.

Contemporary architecture has brought many improvements in dwelling conditions, but it also has a reverse side: man often feels homeless in the environment created by modern technology and aesthetics. Therefore a returning into the poetic architecture is needed. In phenomenological philosophy there has been a systematic attempt to return contemporary man to a basis more fundamental than technology. Martin Heidegger describes the relationship to technology as "letting-be" (Gelassenheit). In letting-be one paradoxically says "yes" and "no" to the technological world. The importance of Heidegger lies particularly in that in his thinking the poetic and the technological are not set completely in opposition to each other, but rather the poetic creates a basis for the technological.

Aalto discusses architecture and creativity in his article The Trout and the Stream (1947). The article is seen as a culmination of Aalto's theoretical thinking. There can be seen many interesting parallels between Aalto's approach and Heidegger's letting-be, because Aalto, too, was constantly striving for a balance between technology and nature. The conclusion is that Aalto's theoretical thinking is not private, but contains general significance, especially when we think of the place of the technology in future architecture.


Alvar Aalto’s sketch of a ‘fantastic mountain landscape’ for Viipuri City Library (about 1929). The ideas of library’s layered organization and an inventive lightning solution can be found already in this early drawing. Drawings collection / Alvar Aalto Museum.

Download Full Text (PDF)
Pekka Passinmäki
Associate Professor, Architect, Ph.D.