Brussels 1958 – The Atomium

The Atomium in Brussels is the most wonderful relic from an Exhibition anywhere in the World. At least that is what I think, and my visit to it in the summer of 2017 didn’t disappoint or change my opinion. The Eiffel Tower is of course bigger, more iconic more famous and more important, but for all those reasons it is not surprising, it is a perfectly acclimatised part of the city and completely at home there. The Atomium still looks so modern, so surprising, out of place and shining like a giant chemistry experiment that has lnanded on the outskirts of the City.

The centrepiece of the Brussels Universal and International Exposition, the Atomium was at the heart of the first Universelle Exposition to be held after the second World War. Belgium has a long tradition of impressive Great Exhibitions – 1885, 1894, 1897, 1910, 1930, 1935 – all important events held to promote Belgium and her colonial nations. Expo 58 continued this tradition, it was visited by nearly 42 million people and was on an impressive scale, using the grounds of the Heysel park  which still contained a number of buildings that remained from the 1935 exhibition as well as all the new pavilions, attractions and the Heysel stadium. The architecture at the event displayed a variety of interpretations of Modernism, glass walls, light and spacious structures, unusual forms and most famously Le Corbusier’s pavilion for Phillips which was one of the finest exhibition pavilions of the century.

The Atomium was the centrepiece, intended to show the importance of science to the new world, a giant atom, the crystal molecule of iron providing the model for the structure which dominated the heart of the site. There were nine spheres, six of which  could be used to house displays, and links containing escalators which represented the binding molecular forces. Initially intended to rest solely on the lowest sphere, the side struts with stairs were added to provide the necessary structural support. Apparently the cladding of the spheres presented the biggest problem for the engineers as the sun shining on certain parts only at any one time gave problems of unequal expansion. The most relevant help came from the engineers who had worked on the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain.

The exhibition organisers wanted to demonstrate the rapidly developing sciences and gain support for nuclear power amongst the public and show how the mastery of these sciences  put the human race in control of their own destiny. The message was simple, the public could trust scientists, they could only ever have the interests of humanity at heart, nuclear power was completely safe and the atom was at the heart of the modern world. The power of Modernism and new science and the best intentions were thrown into sharp contrast by the rapidly deepening Cold War which gave the symbol a far more sinister tone. Nations might have competed architecturally in 1958 in an effort to assert their place in the world order, they may have taken full advantage of the numerous opportunities to win victories in the propaganda war, however the potential disaster of war between Russia and America was never far from people’s minds.

So how does engineer Andre Waterkeyn’s design look today? 335ft tall the stainless steel clad spheres, originally aluminium, sparkle in the sunshine and look magnificent against a clear blue sky. Modelled on an atom magnified 165 billion times it looks like no other structure. Apparently not intended to outlast the exhibition it was so popular that it was kept as a visitor attraction. Refurbished and reopened in 2006 it still looks brand new whilst internally retaining many late 50’s details that give it a real charm. Some of the escalators that run along the connecting tubes have been decorated with coloured lights and the spheres contain displays relating to the Heysel park, Expo 58 and the Atomium. This building demonstrates the power of the Great Exhibition to bring about extraordinary monuments which reflect their time so clearly, usually temporary it is the possibility allowed by this transient nature that enables architects to take risks and embrace whimsy and showmanship.

Like all good exhibition centrepieces the Atomium gave birth to thousands of souvenirs. This one still being enjoyed as much as it ever was in 1958.

Usually these buildings last no longer than the exhibitions but occasionally they survive due to the affection in which the public hold them. They become a lasting memorial to that moment in time when the Belgian government decided to showcase their nation and all that they felt was good about it and invite other nations to attend with their own displays of nationality. It is this moment from 1958 that the Atomium articulates so clearly.


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