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Fabulous at 50

As Brussels celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Atomium, Nina Lamparski travels back in time and explores one of the world’s most enigmatic structures

It gave us the saxophone, electric railways and more than 1,000 beer brands, but perhaps less known is the fact that Belgium also nearly presented the world with an upside-down version of the Eiffel Tower as part of the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.

In the end (and probably for the best), the engineer André Waterkeyn dismissed the idea, instead opting for a structure which, he felt, would be more representative of the era’s reconstruction efforts and scientific progress. This was, after all, the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

It took 36 months and more than 15,000 workers to build the Atomium, now one of Brussels’ most famous landmarks. Made entirely of steel clad with aluminium, the 102m tall masterpiece is essentially a model of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times. Its nine large spheres, supported by three bipods, serve as exhibition halls and spaces for public functions.

For their creator Waterkeyn, the material they represent is: “composed of condensed energy which, if man so desires, can be applied for the greater benefit of a civilisation based on technical achievement bent to the service of humanity.” His words perfectly sum up the mood of hope pervading the launch of the World’s Fair 50 years ago on 17 April. Commonly referred to as Expo 58, it was the first major international exposition after World War II, the last one having taken place in New York in 1939.

Europe was still emerging from the traumas of the war and was ready to embrace a gleaming modernity. As Belgium’s King Baudouin said during his inaugural speech: “The aim of this World’s Fair is to create an atmosphere of understanding and peace.”

Some 52 countries took part in the six-month show, setting up shop in 150 pavilions that had been built on the 200-hectare Heysel plateau. The event featured never-seen-before architectural constructions using futuristic lines and curves and urban materials such as steel, concrete and glass.

“It kick-started a huge modernisation drive in Brussels,” explained Henri Simons, director of the Atomium Association, during an interview with a local newspaper. “Work began on new buildings, roads and airports. New products arrived. Coca Cola had a big building at the Expo and it was the first time many people tasted it. Colour television was shown there, even though it only arrived in living rooms 10 years later. It was more than just a fair. It was a moment to place our faith in progress.”

In the long run, Expo 58 also cemented Brussels’ political future. “Before, Brussels was a provincial town,” said Simons. “But this – and the arrival of the EU institutions [at the same time] – changed the city and it became the capital of Europe.”

At the time it must have felt like the centre of the world, judging by the prestigious names gracing the fair with their presence. From Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Jane Mansfield to Romy Schneider and Walt Disney; from British Princess Margaret and Queen Juliana of Holland to the royal couple of Monaco; anyone who was someone flew to Belgium to attend the exhibition. Even US President Dwight Eisenhower and the French general Charles de Gaulle visited.

Including Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and heads of state, Brussels welcomed nearly 42 million guests between April and October – five times the country’s population in 1958. Archives revealed that the very first visitor was an American who had travelled all the way from Texas and camped outside the site for three nights before the official opening of the gates.

Half a decade later, as Belgium celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Atomium, the crowds’ enthusiasm has clearly not ebbed. Once again, the site plays host to a six-month-long event entitled Brussels Happiness, which was launched under dazzling fireworks on 17 April and will run until 19 October.

On the occasion of the jubilee, the Atomium management has drawn up a busy schedule of exhibitions, concerts, flea markets, conferences, tours and talks relating to every aspect of the style and substance of the forward-looking 50s.

One of the fair’s highlights is the Pavilion of Happiness, a somewhat surreal exhibition space built of recyclable materials, including over 40,000 drinks cartons. A journey through this astonishing structure will take you deep into the heart of an era marked by a fervent desire for peace and democracy and a faith in technological progress, destined to enhance people’s lives. Here, amid the columns, arches and cupolas, the ideas and dreams promoted by the 58 World’s Fair have been brought back to life.

Like the Eiffel Tower, constructed for the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, the Atomium was intended to be torn down at the end of the event. Instead, it has become the ultimate symbol of modernity. And, to this day, the structure continues to fulfill André Waterkeyn’s vision that: “The visitor, gazing from close at hand or venturing inside, is surprised and baffled by the building and leaves it at last with unaccustomed thoughts.”

Bruxelles Bonheur (Brussels Happiness) runs until 19 October, Atomium Square, Brussels (Laken), tel. +32 (0)2 475 4775, www.atomium.be. Visitors born in 1958 will receive free entrance on their birthday

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