Monday, April 13, 2015

The Biggest Atom Of All: Atomium Brussels

Its a giant atom
I think of it as one of the oddest, yet most iconic structures dotting a European skyline. (And I'm not the only one who thinks this as CNN once called it Europe's most bizarre building). It is simultaneously intriguing yet strange. It is referred to as the symbol of Brussels and was built as the showpiece of Expo 58, the 1958 World's Fair. In case you are still guessing at what I am talking about, it is the Atomium, the giant silver atom looming over the skyline in the outskirts of the Belgian capitol.

Atomium stands at 335 feet tall and 59 feet wide and is a series of stainless steel eight spheres connected in a way that forms a cell unit. A series of escalators transport visitors to five of the cells with an elevator whisking people to the top sphere from which one has a panoramic view of Brussels and the surrounding area. And on a clear day, the view was well worth the wait for the elevator to the top. Looking in one direction you can take in Brussels' grand architecture while looking in the other direction you see urban sprawl, a modern exposition center and the neighboring Mini-Europe, an attraction whose oddity is tempered by the Atomium itself.

An ultra modern office
space made completely
out of plastic
What you see on the outside of this giant atom--shiny metal making me think of a science experiment gone wrong--belies what you find inside. Today its construction remains novel but at the time it was built, it truly was cutting edge. With their orange and pale blue colors, the interior of the spheres can only be called retro. Visitors wending their way up a combination of escalators and stairs through the museum can learn about the engineering feat that was involved in the construction of the atom. There are also exhibits on the history of various districts and buildings within Brussels and of the 1958 World's Fair itself. You can also see ariel views of what the area surrounding Brussels was like before urban sprawl took over and you can peek outside to look both up and down at the atom's spheres. But even after undergoing an extensive renovation which included resurfacing the spheres with stainless steel and reinforcing its vertical support beams, the Atomium remains a product of the time in which she was originally constructed. One only needs to ride the escalator down through a dark techno-colored tube, which filled my head with visions of a lava lamp, to be reminded of this.

At any given time there are temporary exhibits sharing space alongside the permanent displays. When I visited the temporary exhibit was entitled Orange Dreams and played homage to the wonders of plastics. Talk about retro; when so much of today's focus is on espousing the ills of plastics, here is an exhibit dedicated to its virtues. Everything in this exhibit space, from the furniture and tableware to decor and even clothing, was made of a type of plastic. And to drive home the retro feel, not only was it plastic but everything was also a shade of orange. From bright and neon to faded and more subtle, I felt as though I was wandering through the entire pantone spectrum of orange. I'm not sure if it was cool, surreal or just plain strange.

A view from the top

The lava lamp-esqe ride down the escalator

So when you are in Brussels take a break from the chocolate, beer and grand architecture and visit the Atomium. It will be one of the strangest yet most memorable places you will ever visit.

Another perspective; under and looking up

If you go:
Square de l'Atomium
B-1020 Brussels, Belgium

Open daily from 10.00-18.00; ticket office closes 1/2 hour prior
Adults 11 Euro, teens 8 Euro, children 6-12 6 Euro, under 6 Free
Combination tickets available to neighboring Mini-Europe

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