Part sculpture, part architecture, the Atomium is a giant stainless steel atom that towers over the north of Brussels.
This unique structure was built in 1958 as the centrepiece of the World Expo, the first universal world exhibition of the post-war era. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it was only ever intended to be a temporary structure, but it fought its way into the hearts and minds of locals and visitors, and became an icon of the city. It’s now the top tourist attraction in the capital of Europe. And it’s here to stay.
Designed by André Waterkeyn, the Atomium is a giant iron crystal magnified 165 billion times its normal size – a figure that gives me brain ache! It’s made up of nine large spheres, each with a diameter of 18 metres, connected via a series of tubes.
As I approached this unusual monument, sunlight reflected off the shiny stainless steel coating of the spheres, highlighting its futuristic appearance. It felt appropriate, as this relic of post-war Belgium symbolised the optimistic spirit of the times, when the peaceful use of atomic energy for science suggested a golden future for our technological age. Long before a pair of tragicomic world leaders with bad hair began threats of a return to nuclear war…
Today, the Atomium is a museum with a panoramic view. Visitors are whisked to the top sphere in a superfast lift; at the time of its construction, this was the fastest lift in the world and it’s still the fastest in Europe. I took a picture through the glass ceiling as we zoomed up, though the result wasn’t exactly the artistic blurring motion shot I had in mind. Ahem!
From the top, there’s a 360 view over Brussels and the surrounding, flat landscape. On a clear day, it’s said you can see as far as the coast at Antwerp, though my summer in Brussels hasn’t seen many of those!
The picture above looks over the Royal Park at Laeken, home of the Belgian royal family, with Brussels city centre to the right (under the blurred bit – the joy of taking pictures through glass!).
The main exhibition in the Atomium is From Symbol to Icon. It charts the history and construction of the monument, its place in Expo ‘58, and its journey to a permanent feature in Brussels’ skyline.
There’s also a temporary exhibition space – currently featuring SABENA and the golden age of air travel – a place for kids to have sleepovers, a restaurant, and a space for hire. The three spheres immediately below the top are not open to the public.
However, I was more interested in the series of tubes connecting the spheres. I’ve always loved stairs (must be the mountain goat in me – I’m a Capricorn!), and there’s something surreal about clambering around these, suspended between giant spheres metres above the ground in a ginormous atom.
They’re also very photogenic with a great sense of perspective. Each tube is slightly different, with the most dramatic saved to last – an escalator down a multi-coloured disco-light tube that leads towards the exit. Back to the future, indeed!
The Atomium is in the north of Brussels, a short walk from Heysel metro station, which is on line 6. It costs €12 for an individual adult ticket (correct as of summer 2017 – check the official website for current prices).
If you’re visiting in summer, don’t arrive too close to the closing time. I arrived about 90 minutes before it closed on a Sunday in late July and it took at least 45 minutes to get to the lift after buying my ticket.
Is it worth it? I think so. This architectural oddity is a photographer’s dream and there isn’t anything remotely like it anywhere else in the world. It also provides an interesting contrast to the medieval core of the city and Brussels’ famous art deco and art nouveau buildings. And besides, who doesn’t love a bit of science geekery?