It’s the world of fast cars, polka dots and Mad Men. Thoughts of the nuclear age and space consumed the public and everyone had emerged from World War II looking forward to the future with promises of technological advances and better lives for everyone. It was this liquor soaked, smoke filled room out of which the Atomium in Brussels emerged for the 1958 World’s Fair.
I first learned of the strange Belgian mega-structure by watching the travel reality show “The Amazing Race,” which featured the Atomium in one of its episodes. It was so strange and beautiful that I knew I had to visit when we spent the Christmas holiday in Brussels.
The Brussels Worlds Fair, better known as Expo ’58, was the first major World’s Fair after the second World War and because of that fact there were a lot of expectations. Western Europe was still rebuilding more than a decade after the war and new and frightening super powers had emerged to divide the world. More than anything people wanted hope, promise and bright shiny things to admire. That’s where the Atomium entered the scene.
The 335 foot tall structure was designed by André Waterkeyn and Les Architectes Polak and is meant to represent a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Tubes connect the spheres along the 12 edges of the cube and all eight vertices to the center. They enclose escalators connecting the spheres containing exhibit halls and other public spaces, the top one is reserved for panoramic views of the city.
It was an unusually sunny morning as we disembarked the metro train and walked to site of the retro wonder near Heysel Park. The Atomium is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Brussels, an odd fact for a city so rich in history. The sun reflected brightly off the stainless steel balls as we approached the ticket office and I simply looked up in amazement; it was both so strange and interesting at the same time. We quickly paid the 11 Euro each and entered the belly of the beast.
Escalators take the visitor through several of the balls, each housing different exhibitions about the construction of the Atomium and the World’s Fair itself. It was mostly interesting, although I admittedly sped through the displays, eager to get to the top for the panoramic views. Even though it was a Wednesday morning in the middle of winter, the Atomium was still busy and we had to elbow our way to get great views of the city from the top ball. (snicker, snicker) Was it worth it? Yeah, mostly. The city views were a bit hazy, but pretty, and we could even see what is one of the most bizarre attractions, Little Europe, a miniature continent complete with landmarks.
We finally figured out how to leave the massive iron crystal, stopped for a snack of macarons in the Atomium café and walked back to the metro, looking back at the mega-structure behind us as it basked in the late morning sun. The planners had done their job, they really did create the future in Belgium.