In many large cities of the world, especially in the Middle and far East, there’s an unspoken race to create stunning new architecture. As a result, massive constructions appear every year all over the globe in the shape of gleaming airport terminals, luxury hotels, rocketing skyscrapers and more. Many of these new builds carry a message that goes beyond their stylish design and size. Above all they’re a symbol of the host country’s growth and ambitions on the international stage. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, for example, are considered an emblem of Malaysia’s “developed nation” status. Similarly, the Burj Khalifa and Al Arab do the same for the Emirates. Perhaps the Lakhta Centre in Saint Petersburg is an icon of Russian aspirations, as well.
I’m neither an architect nor a civil engineer and can’t comment on the hazards of building modern high rise structures. However, what I do know is that some architecture, whether ancient or new, can amaze and stun the public. It can also capture the imagination and stir feelings of national pride. After all, how could the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore fail to impress? How could the Capital Gate Tower in Abu Dhabi not leave an onlooker in awe? Similarly, what can be said about the CCTV building in Beijing?
In Brussels, at the heart of Europe, there’s an older piece of architecture that delivers the same sense of admiration described above. It’s called the Atomium and it’s hardly a skyscraper nor a fashionable hotel. It’s neither a museum nor a government building. In fact, the Atomium has no real functional purpose whatsoever other than being an architectural wonder in pretty much the same way the Eiffel Tower is in Paris.
The building’s charm has all to do with its futuristic design. Its weird appealing “space ball” geometry captures everyone by surprise, it draws smiles and raises curiosity just like every decent work of art. It’s like no other building in the world and rightly considered one of the most iconic in Europe.
You can reach the Atomium easily from down town Brussels. A twenty minute ride on the subway, on line 6 to the Heizel metro stop will get you there. As you exit the station the massive silver spheres and connecting branches of the Atomium’s structure fill the skyline. You can’t miss it.
There are nine eighteen meter diameter balls in the design that at first glance seem positioned randomly. As you get a little closer to the building though, it becomes clear that there is indeed an order. The Atomium is a gigantic model of the “cubic centred” crystal structure, the same structure that is found Iron ore (Fe), Lithium (Li) and many other metals, too.
There’s a wealth of information about the Atomium on line that I won’t repeat here. I’ll just hint at the fact that the structure was built in 1958 for that year’s World International Expo. It was designed by the able hands of Jean Pollak (architect) and Andrè Waterkeyn (engineer) and was never really intended to be a permanent landmark.
Tickets to the venue cost around 15 Euro each for adults and are best purchased on line. However, queues at the entrance are to be expected due to strict security checks. Because of this it took me about fifteen minutes to get through the inlet barriers.
Out of this world
The Atomium’s inside doesn’t disappoint at all. A clever system of escalators, and stairs allows visitors to move easily from one “ball” to the next. In each of these there are temporary art exhibitions, pictures, videos and artefacts from the Atomium’s past, all worth some attention. The round shape of the chambers plus some fancy soft coloured lighting gives each room a different dreamy feeling that is both soothing and exciting at the same time. Part labyrinth, and part museum there’s something to keep everyone entertained inside the Atomium, enough for a few hours of fun at least.
Space ships and movies
The Atomium reminds me of something from a 1950’s movie, like The Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds, Destination Moon or similar. For this reason once inside I felt as as though on board a C-57D space ship with captain Adams (Les Nielsen) and crew ready for take off. The steampunk style iron cladding, the shape and colours of the inside design reeked of cold war science fiction nostalgia. This was a time in which Sputinks were launched into orbit and atomic bombs kept everyone in check. Maybe Pollak and Waterkeyn purposely meant to capture some of this post war drama when they drew up their plans for the Atomium in the early days of the space race, who knows.
Meal with a view
The highest point of the Atomium is at around 100m form ground level. Of course there are some great views to admire from the windows of the upper most sphere. There’s also a bar and restaurant up there. The menu includes lobster, meat cuts and steamed mussels. Prices are steep but the food is worth it.
I enjoyed the Atomium immensely. If nothing else I took some unusual pictures and got excited about a landmark I think is definitely unique. Hence, I look forward to visiting again some time soon.
If you’re in Brussels, Belgium and have any interest in architecture or perhaps in old sci-fi movies then pay the Atomium a visit. You won’t regret it!
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