...like the chaps above. They stand on top of the Atomium, arguably Belgium’s most iconic landmark, being at the same time a gigantic sculpture and an architectural enigma. It was commissioned in 1958 (the "Atomic Age"), just in time for the Brussels World Exhibition, and the building is actually representing nine iron atoms arranged in a so-called BCC-crystal, magnified 165 billion times. BCC stands for Body Centered Cubic and is the scientific way to describe the crystalline arrangement of nine atoms whereby there’s one atom at each corner of an imaginary cube and one atom right in the center of that cube. Compare for yourself the matvis graphic to the right and the Atomium photo and you’ll see that for once I’m not talking nonsense. Btw, Matvis is a crystal structure visualizing software and it’s real great.
The Atomium dominates the Heizelplateau, a plain just north of Brussels on which exhibitions of all kinds are held in several great expo halls all year round. The nine balls are the brainchild of André Waterkeyn, a Belgian engineer born as a WWI refugee in 1917 in England. In 1954 he was a young director at the Belgian Federation of the Metallurgical Industry, Fabrimetal, recently renamed Agoria, and he won the bid issued by the World Exhibition Organizing Committee to design a fitting symbol for Belgian craftsmanship. Waterkeyn being a "metal" man and Fabrimetal being one of the exhibition's patrons, it is not surprising that the symbol turned out to be an iron crystal. Had a chap from the Belgian Food Federation won the contest, we Beljuns might have been saddled up perpetually with a gigantic pak frieten as a fitting symbol for Belgian culinary prowess. Or a gigantic crate of Duvel. Whatever.
Anyway, Waterkeyn set to work with frenzied vigour and actual construction started in March 1956. The Atomium's structure is made entirely of steel and at the time it was clad with aluminium, more exactly the special alloy Peraluman 15, which was chosen for its low weight and its better resistance to corrosion. For all the effort, durable materials and sound engineering, the Atomium originally was not intended to outlast the 1958 Exhibition for more than six months - quite similar to the Eiffel Tower which should also have been demolished shortly after the 1889 Paris World Exhibition.
Some stats. The Atomium is 102 m high (334.6. ft.) and its spheres have a diameter of 18m (59.0 ft). The distance from one sphere to another, measured along on the cube's ribs, is 29m (95.1 ft). The connecting shafts are 23m long with a diameter of 3.3m and house escalators, which can take 3,000 persons per hour. The elevator speed 16.4 ft/sec. It takes visitors up to the top sphere in 23 seconds and has a capacity of 22 persons. A floor has an area of 240m2 (2,583 sq.ft) and the height between floors is approximately 4.5m (14.8 ft). The restaurant in the top sphere can accommodate 140 persons and the viewpoint situated on the floor just below can contain 250 persons.
During the nineties it gradually became clear that some major maintenance works would soon become necessary. Belgium being a crazy smorgasbord of competing authorities it was not immediately clear who would cough up the money for such a project. The government of Brussels Capital Region? The City of Brussels? The federal government? What would be the contribution of the private sector? Serious candidates presented themselves, like Belgacom and Daimler. A less serious one was Richard Branson's Virgin, on the condition the Atomium be painted in the colours of Virgin Airlines. Finally, in 2001 the federal government decided to finance the bulk of a 27.5 million euros renovation, and in March 2004 work was started on a two-year complete overhaul. Biggest novelty hereby was to replace the ageing aluminium lining with stainless steel. Another break with the past was fragmentation of the original 1,000 panels with 50,000 much smaller ones in two thousand different shapes. The Belgian building consortium Besix-Delens would be responsible for the overhaul, whereby they chose to train alpinists as construction workers rather than the other way round! The Antwerp-based architects bureau Conix Architecten signed for the interior refurbishment, and the German Light Designer Ingo Maurer for lighting inside as well as outside, whereby he used LED systems to simulate the fifties light effects.
On Saturday 18 February 2006 the Atomium was officially reopened. To Belgians, the Atomium is what the Eiffel Tower is to French, and a visit to Brussels without at least passing by the monumental "iron crystal" is like going to Paris without visiting Eiffels famous creation. Too bad the man who lies at the base of it all is no longer among us. André Waterkeyn passed away on October 4, 2005, at the ripe old age of 88. He did see the start of the renovation - was even present at the site now and then - but not its completion. In his honour, the uppermost sphere is called after him. After almost five decades his creation, which was originally meant to be demolished in 1959, shines again. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to his genius is from 77- year old Frans Cools, legendary foreman on many great building projects in Belgium and then supervisor of the Atomium construction:
"Eighteen months we worked on it, in a hellish pace, and I can tell you: it is built to last a thousand years."