1958 Brussels – Expo 58

The Atomium – still as wonderful as ever it was.

The last Great Exhibition to be held in Europe? Perhaps not, but in many ways this feels like the last in a tradition. Belgium has played such an important part in the history of Great Exhibitions from 1885 onwards and the city of Brussels was the first to stake a claim to a major event after the Second World War. London had thought such an event too ambitious and costly in 1951 and decided upon a national event, the Festival of Britain. Brussels, perhaps with the benefit of a little extra time, achieved what London could not.

The arrow of civil engineering – an impressive structure by Jacques Moeschal

The Brussels Universal and International Exposition, 1958 or Expo 58 as it was widely known took place between April and October and was visited by some 42 million people. Still remembered fondly by those who visited and memorialised by the Atomium, Expo 58 was a huge success. Held at a fascinating moment when developments in science, in particular nuclear power, were being promoted by national governments and the ‘atom’ was the symbol of the future that science promised. The exhibition occurred against the ongoing rising tensions between Russia and America the Cold War provided an unsettling background for an event that promised so much.

Le Corbusier’s pavilion for Philips. Pavilion as total design concept.

The most important pavilion at the exhibition, certainly in terms of architectural history, was Le Corbusier’s pavilion for Philips which contained a ‘complete show’ of music and lights projected onto the walls combining to create an electronic poem about the destiny of humanity. The extensive site, some 500 acres, was full of modernist pavilions, concrete, glass, steel and aluminium were used to create light and airy modern structures.

Famously the site was dominated by the Atomium. I wrote a blogpost about my visit in 2017. Click here to see my blog post on the Atomium. Interestingly Jonathan Coe wrote a book Expo 58 based at the exhibition, a nicely humorous tale in which he created a lovely late 50’s feel. This book is well worth a look, I wrote a very brief review of it – click here to read this review.

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