Spend a night in the heart of the Atomium? A 1958 experience…
By Gery de Pierpont
A privilege exclusive to schoolchildren!
As were the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Space Needle in Seattle, the Atomium in Brussels was erected on the occasion of a World Fair and was never dismantled. Resolutely atypical, it is a late 1950s architectural masterpiece that has continued to fascinate the Bruxellois as much as the thousands of tourists who visit it every month. Renovated in 2006, the edifice now has a sphere given over to the accommodation of school groups. A magical night awaits them at the heart of a myth that their grandparents can only dream of!
Progress – the stuff of dreams!
Thirteen years after the end of the Second World War, Brussels took up the challenge to organize the first World Fair since the one hosted by San Francisco in 1939. There was a universal wish to turn the page and to construct a prosperous and peaceful future. From this time on, thanks to the leap in progress, nothing would be as before. The world’s nations built the most daring and avant-garde pavilions throughout the Heysel Esplanade – a show of the most innovative techniques of the time. The USA and the USSR, the planet’s two giants, were determined to dazzle the world with their cutting-edge technology; Europe, with regained industrial productivity, was not to be left behind; nor were the more powerful countries of Africa, Asia and South America whose natural ressources were of great entrepreneurial interest. Small cable cars traversing the wide avenues linked the international pavilions, the industrial exhibition halls, the funfairs, and the Belgique Joyeuse – a reconstituted village of traditional architectural styles to be found in Belgium.
A new symbol for Brussels
The exhibition’s landmark was the emblematic Atomium. Designed by civil engineer, André Waterkeyn, it is an engineering tour de force, which represents the atoms of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It was erected – often heroically, when conditions were bad – in less than two years. The structure is made up of nine spheres (atoms) of 18 metres in diameter, linked by tubular galleries and held up by three slender steel bipods. With its 2400 tons of steel erected to a height of 102 metres, and its surfaces lit by flashing lights, it stands out against the Brussels skyline like a mysterious, science-fiction spaceship.
The public has access to the interior of six of the spheres, the highest of which offers panoramic views, and at its top level, a much sought-after restaurant. This is either directly accessible by elevator, or can be reached by doing the full tour by means of a network of steeply inclined, disorienting escalators and long staircases that lead from one sphere to the other.
At the time of its construction, the Atomium’s elevator was the fastest in the world, rising at five metres per second. A window set in its ceiling gives visitors a surprising insight into the tubular framework.
40 million visitors to the 1958 Exhibition
The Brussels World Fair was an unprecedented success. For six months, the whole world forgot its political differences and the thousands of miles that separated its continents. Science and technology prised humanity from its shell! The atmosphere was dreamlike – practically euphoric. No one realized it then, but it marked the end of an era. The consumer society and the conquest of space were soon to shake up standards and lifestyles; and the cold war and decolonisation were to put a considerable strain on international relations for many decades.
Keeping the Atomium alive
When the World Fair closed its gates on 20 October 1958, the Bruxellois could not bring themselves to dismantle the Atomium, which along with all the other exhibition buildings, would have been its fate. For many years, the Atomium stayed as it was, its future uncertain, until the town authorities decided to keep it open for a few more years and undertook much needed remedial work on its structure. However, time had taken its toll and the temporary monument had greatly deteriorated.
Finally, between 2004 and 2006, the Atomium was completely overhauled and renovated. Its original aluminium skin was replaced with sheets of stainless steel and at the same time, it was fitted with hundreds of new flashing lights to symbolise electrons circling the atoms. A new reception pavilion was also installed at ground-floor level to channel the flow of visitors.
Giant cocoons – resoundingly metallic
The spheres that are open to the public are made up of two floors with viewing windows and another level for technical services. The circular spaces and the extraordinary, exposed framework of steel arches, lend themselves particularly well to exhibitions and receptions. Architectural creations and designs of the sixties can be seen here, from the town plans for Brasilia to Jacques Tati films – not forgetting in between – the structured, rigidly bouffant or beehive hairstyles, or Panton’s colourful chairs!
An unusual educational project
In 2006, one of the Atomium’s spheres (not open to the public), was given over to the hosting of school groups. Educational activities are regularly organised to familiarise pupils with a time when their grandparents would have been their age, as well as the revolutionary building methods, and general creativity of the sixties.
Groups of primary-school children can even spend the night in the ‘Kids’ Sphere’, which is equipped with suspended sleeping pods – a concept designed by Spanish artist Alicia Framis, which she named, ‘Rain Molecules’. Each pod sleeps three to four children. It is a magical experience particularly in the dark, when the town is aglitter with a thousand lights.
Understanding Urban Space
Going beyond the Atomium’s history and its unique architectural characteristics, the children are also made aware of how Brussels has spread through the ages. From this exceptional viewpoint, the city stretches out as far as the eye can see and prepares the ground for a class discussion on the ‘idea’ of a city and urbain development, before they visit other districts of the Belgian capital. For the very young, the city is often an unfamiliar and sometimes destabilizing world. Its managment is crucial to the development of our societies.
An envious wish to return to school!
The intake of schoolchildren is at six in the evening, after the Atomium has closed to the general public. Once they have settled into the sphere set aside exclusively for them, they are invited downstairs for their supper. Equipped with showers and toilet facilities, tables, chairs, and discussion areas with views from the windows, every detail, even the furniture, has been designed specifically to meet the needs of its young visitors and also to evoke the atmosphere of the ‘swinging sixties’. A film is shown as darkness falls; then, a last glance through the geometrical windows, at the illuminated city – a surreal moment in the heart of the Atomium’s huge and imposing spheres. Effervescent and sparkling, they seem to be draped with garlands of Christmas lights …
Early in the morning, a festive breakfast laid out in the Restaurant Panoramique, at the highest point of the monument, awaits the young heritage explorers. This is followed by an interactive guided tour before the first influx of visitors.
The dizzying world of recent history
Of all the areas offered by the Atomium, the tubes’ staircases and escalators are the ones that most fascinate the children. The lighting – a mix of coloured lights and daylight filtered through circular portholes – is surreal, and deprived of one’s normal visual cues, it is easy to feel a little disoriented; fortunately, there are handrails everywhere! Faces light up with smiles, and for a while, it is easy to believe one is travelling in a space rocket.
If you are a teacher or a member of a parents association, do not hesitate to contact the Atomium to register your pupils or your children! It is never too early to get a taste for spending a “night in history”!