Brussels Atomium: Features of a Work of Architecture that Defies Definition

When it comes to architecture, Belgium has plenty to be proud about. Just one amazing fact for you: with more than 3,000 castles, no country has a higher ratio of castles to surface area than Belgium. The nation’s capital is packed with buildings that have long attracted international attention, starting with the Hotel de Ville town hall, a masterpiece in the Brabant Gothic style that looks out over the famous Grand Place square among beautiful Guildhalls. Without doubt, however, the construction that arouses the greatest curiosity in the Belgian capital is the Atomium, a work that has defied definition since it was first built.

The Brussels Atomium

Located at Heysel Plateau, in Laeken, immediately north of Brussels, visitors who visit the Atomium tend to arrive in awe. International Expos were hosted here in 1935 and 1958; the Atomium was built for the second of these events. It is no ordinary building, or even a simple monument. From a certain point of view, its very position – in a park, in the middle of a large traffic circle – may make visitors think of a monument, albeit one of gargantuan dimensions. The Atomium is big indeed: 102 metres tall. Although it is outside the centre of Brussels, this gigantic construction dominates the city skyline. What, then, is it? Initially, its highly-futuristic look was designed to represent Belgium, as a pavillion for the international exposition. A wide range of facilities are on offer inside, from museums to a restaurant, deservedly making the Brussels Atomium a giant, must-see site on any visit to the European capital.

But this is only one way of categorizing it. The Atomium looks like an iron crystal enlarged 165 billion times, big enough to house a succession of escalators, elevators, restaurants and much, much more. The shape of an iron crystal was by no means picked at random: it was chosen as an explicit symbol of the great faith people invested in scientific progress back then (especially nuclear science), represented here by nine atoms.

History of the Brussels Atomium

The 1958 Brussels Universal Expo was the first major expo to be staged after World War II. For the most part, the event used the same locations built for the earlier 1935 exhibition, which was, incidentally, the last major exposition before the war broke out. Engineer André Waterkeyn’s ambitious idea for the Belgian pavillion, the Atomium, won the competition, in a partnership with architects André and Jean Polak. The initial idea was to erect a temporary structure, which would have been taken down when the event finished six months later. However, the Atomium attracted so much interest that the original idea underwent review, and the huge structure became permanent. Quite a few pre-eminent architectural works have come into being as a result of universal expositions. For example, the Eiffel Tower, another metal masterpiece, was initially erected for the 1899 Paris Exposition.

The original design of the Atomium’s structure was somewhat different to the one we see today. After carrying out tests in a wind tunnel, it was decided to add support columns to enhance the steel structure’s safety. When first built, the elevators in the structure’s central pillar were claimed to be the fastest in the world; the connections along the tubular shapes, on the other hand, relied on long staircases.

The Belgian Atomium’s Building

Each atom, that is to say each of the nine spheres that make up the Atomium, is steel: specifically, nine steel spheres 18 metres in diameter, connected together by a solid steel structure. Excluding the base, three reinforced concrete bipods that support the total load along with the magnificent central pillar, nearly the entire work is constructed of metal.

Just six of the nine spheres are accessible to visitors. The three that do not have any direct vertical supports for enhanced load-bearing capacity are off-limits to the public.

The Atomium’s inside: A Multifunctional Space

Not surprisingly, the Atomium offers fine views. On a clear day, the views out over the Belgian city and its surroundings from its highest spheres are simply stunning. The Atomium has a great deal more to offer visitors than views. Via elevators, escalators and normal stairs, visitors can see permanent and temporary exhibitions, a restaurant serving typical Belgian cuisine – the Belgium Taste – and much more. One section of the Atomium displays models of the structure that were assembled prior to its construction, showing the various modifications it underwent to ensure that it would be as safe as it is majestic.

2004 Renovation

As noted earlier, when it was inaugurated in 1958, the initial plan was to dismantle the huge structure once the exposition had ended. Not surprisingly, a few decades later, the Atomium was in urgent need of refurbishment. To remedy evident signs of wear and tear, the structure was closed to the public from March 2004 to February 2006 and a number of different jobs carried out: the aluminum panels originally covering the spheres were replaced with stainless steel panels; major works were carried out on the spheres’ external lighting, fitting LED lights to make them highly attractive by night as well as day. Conix Architecten’s design for restoring the Atomium included a redesign of the interior, fitting a galvanized steel coating inside the spheres; some spaces were entirely redesigned, starting with the sphere dedicated to children, for which artist Alicia Framis was commissioned.