The Atomium, which has been a fixture of the Brussels skyline since it was constructed for the World’s Fair in 1958, was originally intended as a temporary building. The 9 gigantic stainless steel spheres together form an enormous iron crystal. After the World’s Fair, the Belgians had become so fond of the bizarre structure that it was never taken down. The Atomium has since come to symbolise Brussels, as the Eiffel Tower does Paris.
The brilliant idea to magnify an iron crystal 165 billion times came from engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak. But the original spheres were covered with aluminium, since they believed this would better protect them from the elements. It was also cheaper – not surprising for a temporary building. A large-scale renovation took place 5 decades later and the aluminium was replaced by inox, the same type of stainless steel that is used for shiny kitchen taps.
The 9 spheres of the Atomium are not all open to the public. Three are not in use, one is for rental only and a fifth is a ‘children’s sphere’ that is only open for students on field trips. Visitors can access the 4 remaining spheres by stairs, escalators and lift. Along the way is a permanent exhibition on the history of the Atomium, among other things.
The exhibition ‘From symbol to icon’ shows the public sentiment towards the Atomium in Belgium over the years. Right after it was built, it symbolised the optimistic spirit of the times. People saw a golden future for humankind in advancing science. But the utopian structure became dilapidated in the late 90s. Since the renovation in 2004, the entire building has been fully updated to meet the requirements of modern times. It has also been fitted in its entirety with thousands of LED lights.
What has remained unchanged is the function of the top sphere as a panorama deck, where visitors can enjoy spectacular views of the city. At the time of the World’s Fair, the lift to this highest level was the fastest in the world. That time has now passed… The current record is now held by the skyscrapers in Asia.