When you’re driving on the outskirts of Brussels, you can’t help but see the Atomium structure. A huge, futuristic design, featuring nine large silver spheres and connecting tubes, it dominates the skyline. It was originally designed and built by engineer Andre Waterkeyn to represent Belgium at the 1958 Universal Exhibition and now houses an exhibition about the 1958 expo, plus other temporary displays.
Visiting the Atomium
The day we visited turned out to be rather wet and miserable, so in a bid to dry out and warm up, we first headed for the upper sphere of the Atomium. This is accessed via a manned lift, which wooshes up in record time. You can look up and see the lift shaft as you travel, if you so desire.
The upper sphere has windows all around, so you can get a panoramic view of Brussels. Unfortunately, our view was rather wet and misty, but it was still possible to see a considerable distance, spot buildings on the horizon and the miniature village and water park down below. On a clear day, the view must be spectacular.
A short flight of stairs from this level takes you up to the highest point in the Atomium, which is used as a restaurant. Halfway around there are tables and bar stools set right next to the porthole-like windows, where you can enjoy a drink. We chose hot chocolate; Euro 3.85 for a good sized pot, which was poured into a very dainty cup.
Fully revived, we set off back down the lift and off to explore the rest of the Atomium. The other spheres (which don’t have windows) are reached via escalators (some steep) and stairs – 80 steps going up and 186 coming down. Although there are nine spheres in total, you only get to explore five – the others are reserved for events, children’s educational visits and technical purposes.
The permanent exhibition sphere portrays the background to the 1958 expo and the huge amount of work involved in making it possible. The World’s Fair of Brussels, or Expo ’58, was held from 17th to 19th October 1958 and was one of the first major world’s fairs in the post-war period. Over 42 million people visited it and the Atomium was originally not intended to survive the expo, as it had been created with the event purely in mind.
However, it has survived and is still going strong today. In the permanent exhibition there are display boards about the expo to read, photos to view and a very informative video to watch, where you get to see the actual building process. It is amazing to watch and is especially notable that the builders worked without any safety harnesses or hard-hats and typically had cigarettes hanging out of their mouths at every point! Building a structure like this today would involve very different working conditions.
As you move on up the escalators, you reach spheres housing temporary exhibitions. These change on a regular basis, but in May 2009 when we visited, it was a Polar exhibition concerned with the Antarctic. Although a very worthy cause and represented reasonably well in most of the displays (a map of the effect global warming is having on the Antarctic, and an informative video about the lives of natives), it had one major failing.
To supposedly illustrate what it’s like to be in the Antarctic, someone had come up with the idea of putting together a walk-through exhibit. A nice idea in theory, except for the execution of it – all it consisted of was white sheets. It was like walking through a billowing tent or a den of sheets that a child had created and certainly didn’t conjure up a realistic impression.
This white sheet experience became the laughing stock of our visit and somewhat took the edge off it. Even parties of children who were visiting at the same time were unimpressed. On from this is a central sphere, home to a snack bar, then it was back down stairs and escalators, past non-public spheres, to reach the bottom again.
Overall, it is a very impressive structure, especially for the period in which it was built, and well worth exploring if you’re in the area. I just hope the temporary exhibition we saw was a slight blip and that others are better designed.
B-1020 Brussels (Laken)