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The Atomium

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If you’d gone to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, you probably came back with souvenirs or Kodachrome slides of these next buildings.

The Arrow of Civil Engineering – a collaborative design by architect J. Van Doosselaere, civil engineer André Paduart and sculptor Jacques Moreschal. Demolished 1970.

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The Philips Pavilion – is still sometimes presented as a Le Corbusier design but less frequently because Iannis Xenakis designed it – Le Corbusier had other committments in Chandigarh. It’s anomalousness reinforced this open secret and the pavilion was respectfully demolished on January 30, 1959, fourteen weeks after the fair ended. The same year, Xenakis left LC’s office to pursue his career as a composer full-time and to better recognition.

The US Pavilion – the work of Edward Durrell Stone. Stone’s rich and neo-classical pavilion […] was considered a fit representation of America’s ‘democratic vitality and romance’ by the American architectural press.  […] Pravda referred to it as ‘a gilded candybox.’ *

After the fair, the steel, glass and plastic superstrucure was removed and the remaining podium taken over by the Belgian radio and television company. It was still occupied by Brussels’ American Theatre as late as 2013. *

The Atomium

In 1954, André Waterkeyn (1917–2005) was a civil engineer and director at Fabrimétal, the federation of the Belgian metalworking industry, when the commissioner of the 1958 Brussels World Fair asked him to design a central monument for the fair. Waterkeyn wanted to showcase the expertise of the Belgian metal industry and his design is based on the nine iron atoms in an iron crystal.

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1: Tickets – Snack Bar & Terrace [Level 0], 2: Entrance, 3: Panorama 360° [Level 7], 5: Temporary Exhibition [Levels 1/2], 6: View Point [Level 6], 7: Shop – Exit [Level 0], A: Panoramic Restaurant [Level 8], B: Kids’ Sphere [Level 6], C: Events Sphere, b, E: The Rockgrowth by Arik Levy

The three spheres D are “technical spheres” closed to the public because of undisclosed safety concerns related to their absence of vertical support. The initial design for The Atomium had vertical support only for the central spheres and many souvenirs still show it like this. Wind tunnel tests predicted the structure would overturn in 80kmph winds and so the lower three spheres were duly provided with supports and emergency escape stairs for good measure.

André and Jean Polak provided design alternatives,

and the detailed design

and construction went ahead.

Construction was a technical feat and, at 102 metres (335 ft) tall with nine 18-metre (60 ft) diameter spheres connected by 3-metre (10 ft) tubes, showcased more than just Belgian metalworking. The fastest elevator in the world went between ground level and the fabulous retro spaceship that is the observation sphere.

There’s much to be amazed at, such as the amount of space toilets, stairs and an elevator take up in an 18-metre sphere. Remaining space is well used as elevator queueing and discharge don’t obstruct the observation loop.

You then take the elevator back to ground level where, immediately above, is the permanent exhibition about The Atomium, the World’s Fair and the 1950s.

Its two levels are linked by stairs in the Atomic Style.

It’s one of those historic paradoxes that, despite McCarthyism, the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, the mid-1950s are still presented as a time of optimism and people looking forward to a better and brigher future for mankind. This conceit manifested itself in the decorative arts as the Atomic Style that mostly amounted to spheres and rods imitating the molecular models of high school chemistry classes. The Eames storage rack and the George Nelson clock are the two most famous examples. At 165 billion times the size of a ferrite crystal, I don’t know why The Atomium isn’t.   

The Atomic Style was a popular style that fuelled the post-war economy with consumer goods such as wallpaper and furniture fabrics targeting lower disposable incomes. Two decades, a world war and an ideology apart, cushions and curtains had come a long way since Constructivist artist Varvara Stepanova created fabric designs as “art for the people”. [c.f. Architecture Myths #18: Popular Culture

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From the permanent exhibition, an escalator takes you to the feature exhibition sphere which, when I visited, was hosting Magritte: Atomium Meets Surrealism.

Surreal it was. The exhibition continues in the central sphere via some more stairs.

The Atomium itself is surreal from wherever it’s seen. It’s one of the world’s stranger buildings.

It arrived in 1958 in that confused period between Googie and Post Modernism when nobody knew what the future would bring. Pereira & Luckman’s LAX Airport Building is pure Googie completed in 1960 yet Eero Saaarinen’s 1954 TWA Terminal at New York’s then Idlewild Airport and Jørn Utzon’s 1958 Sydney Opera House turned out to be the precursors of the new, expensive and enigmatically representational iconic building of 90’s power brokers before mutating into today’s Neoliberal Expressionism. [c.f. The New Inhumanism.]

In 1958 “Pop” artists such as Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein were already mining popular culture for new imagery to process into highbrow culture and architectural manifestation of the same principles was never going to be far away. By the eighties it was clear that what people wanted even if they didn’t know it was columns and pediments. The Atomium offered no support for Post Modernism.

It might have been too intellectual. Saarinen never had to tell us the TWA Terminal looked a bit like a bird, or Utzon the Sydney Opera House a sail. Our appreciation of ferrite crystals depends upon the knowledge of others. It wasn’t conceptually accessible whereas anyone could comprehend a bird, or a sail or – to link the iconic building forward (and back) to post-moderism – columns and pediments on some church, bank or government office.

The Atomium was too representational to be Modernist, too literal to be Post-Modernist, too straightfoward to be iconic, and too off-message for the purposes of Neoliberal Expressionism. Much like Brutalism, its fault was to be what it was, to project a confidence in the future unknown when all that was wanted was saccharine representations of what we already knew. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell]  

In the Atomium Meets Surrealism exhibition, the mock-up on the left in the photograph below is of Magritte’s 1933 painting, The Human Condition in which an easel conceals part of the view from a window. It makes us wonder if the painting represents what’s behind, or what we wish was behind. The human condition may be to not know if the representation depicts truth or fiction but the post-modern condition is to prefer the representation regardless.

• • •

The Atomium was to be dismantled after the World’s Fair but, much like the Eiffel Tower, its popularity and success meant the day was repeatedly postponed until it ultimately became part of Brussels’ identity. In 2006 The Atomium underwent a comprehensive restoration and its aluminium cladding was replaced with stainless steel cladding in isotropic segments delineated by LED at night.

By Kemeter – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45803992

The switch from aluminium to stainless steel cladding resulted in The Atomium now weighing 2,500,000 kilograms instead of 2,400,000 kilograms. This is impressive since, as atoms go, the atomic weight of Fe is twice that of Al.

• • •

When I was in elementary school, before the school year began, our mothers would take us to the school hall where textbooks for the new school year would be arranged in order of year along rows of desks arranged to form a counter. Back home, we would first cover them in brown paper and then open the newly-purchased bottle of CLAG® to affix some favourite image from a newspaper or magazine before adding a second cover of protective plastic. A photo of The Atomium was on one of my new third-grade textbooks. I don’t remember which. 

not all sixties design and graphics was cool

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