The Atomium

We visited the Atomium in the north end of Brussels yesterday. Built in the form of a 335'-tall iron crystal for the 1958 World's Fair, it continues to attract tourists to an area which is now given over to parks and a large trade centre.

The structure itself is remarkable and evokes the confidence in science and idealism of the space age of the late 50s and 60s. I wondered if I would need to carry a sliderule, Brylcreem my hair and wear a plastic pocket protector before being allowed inside...

For a photographer, it's an enjoyable challenge to work the angles both inside and outside the giant model. If you're on a budget or pressed for time, you can have a lot of fun with a camera without paying to get in.

It would be interesting to know a bit more about what the Atomium housed in 1958, though. There are snippets of descriptions of other buildings from the 1958 Fair Brazilian pavilion and a temporary exhibit on the theme of water conservation, but probably not enough that shows the Atomium itself at its best. One sphere can be booked by school groups for activities and sleepovers and another appears to be available for corporate functions. The top-most sphere houses a restaurant and a panorama level that affords views in all directions.

In spite of the way that the tourist guides hype the facility, though, we came away with the sense that the Atomium is a somewhat wasted opportunity. What was it supposed to represent at the World's Fair? What was it meant to say about Belgium's place in the world or sense of itself? What about all the optimism reflected in the vintage World's Fair posters?  (And why can't you buy copies of them in the gift shop?) Does the Atomium have anything to say now? What about more developed and coherent exhibits on science and Belgium's contribution to research? Why not do something in conjunction with Belgium's space agency? (Yes, there is one: the Belgisch Instituut voor Ruimte-Aëronomie - BIRA / Institut d'Aéronomie Spatiale de Belgique - IASB).

With all the efforts that Western European countries have put into restoring, promoting and telling the stories of their historic buildings, this piece of recent history could be managed with more imagination. There aren't many sites like the Atomium, so the vision for it ought to be more than... atomistic.