We first saw the Atomium from the high viewpoint next to the Palace of Justice in central Brussels. Just an angular speck on the horizon, faintly silver in the late-afternoon light. Victor, our Brussels Greeter, pointed it out. I gazed at it and thought, I am coming to you.
There are two things that brought me to Brussels.* The real reason I ended up there this summer is because Tom is a uniquely determined kind of person and searched and searched until he found us an awesome deal on American that used miles we’d received from a credit card deal earlier this year. We knew we wanted to go to Europe, and he found a way for us to get there for a mere $375 each, round trip (and the return leg was business class, mmmmm). That’s almost reason enough to go anywhere.
But the seed of wanting to go to Belgium was planted some time before. I have friends who are also lucky enough to travel, and last year, they went to Paris and Brussels. They’re also engaging enough to be able to propose a thoroughly worthwhile slideshow night to show their trip pictures. I was enraptured by their many photos of Paris, of course, but the showstopper was some silver angular thing that looked like it had fallen out when someone gave the 1950s a good shake.
“What…” I began to ask. “What is that thing?”
That thing was the Atomium, Brussels’ version of the Space Needle. Made for Expo 58, the 1958 World’s Fair, the Atomium is an iron crystal model 165 billion times larger than the real thing. It is huge and shiny and immediately, undeniably absurd, and I saw it and immediately thought: I want to go to there. Nay, I needed to go to there. But at the time, I put it in the back of my head with the other 150,000 places I want and need to go. It’s not rare for me to feel that pull of I HAVE TO BE PHYSICALLY IN THE SAME PLACE AS THAT SOMEDAY.** I’m pretty practiced with filing these impulses away for the right time.
But when Tom suggested Brussels for our big summer trip, and I accepted, my pre-trip research yielded a grand thing: the Atomium and I would be together at last.
To get there, take the Brussels Metro about 30 minutes north of downtown. You’ll emerge in what seems like the most unremarkable suburbia, until you turn around and…
I didn’t think it would be possible, but I was even more taken with it in person. There are two qualities that can make me love something almost immediately:
- The thing is a model of something else.
- Said model is much larger or much smaller than the original.
How could I not be besotted? It’s a big, absurd relic of a strange time. It’s like it was made for me.
Things like this mess with one’s perspective in the most beautiful way. This towering, unlikely object, gradually…
…your entire field of vision.
(A note: I have dozens of pictures like this, because this thing is photogenic and reveals new angles every few steps. However, part of being a good writer is being a good editor, and so I have spared you. You’re welcome.)
At the base, though, the whole thing briefly devolves into the worst of Belgian tourism. A person being paid to sullenly collect 30 cents from everyone who has the misfortune to need to pee. Spendy tickets. Children running hither and thither in the not-fun way. This was our last day of the trip, and my back hurt, and I was already a couple days past my usual isn’t-humanity-neat good humor deserting me. So all I wanted – all I wanted, more than anything – was to just get my audio guide and get up in that thing and be one with the Atomium, ok.
Apologies for the poor picture. I am American and therefore become remarkably unbrave when faced with superfluous security screens because I assume they’re staffed by unkind people on power trips.
Fun fact: the symbol for “security screen” seen here is the same one they use outside for “pickpockets gonna take your stuff.” Make of that what you will.
Once through (and once we had our picture taken with a guy in a big-headed character costume of a redheaded cartoon bellhop, something we wouldn’t begin to understand until we hit the Belgian Comic Strip Center later that day), we encountered a long, long, winding line leading to an elevator. Next to them was an escalator with no line at all. Thinking myself very clever indeed, I suggested we head up the escalator and beat the ridiculous crowd.
The elevator takes you to the exhibits, which are basically catnip to my particular kind of nerdery. 50s-style concept illustrations, the cute outfits the Brussels ambassadors (read: pretty young women, go figure) wore, the various concepts for the Atomium, and press clippings galore. Here’s a thing I learned this trip: did you know that the world does not agree on how many continents there are? Fact! The Brussels World Fair insignia is a five-pointed star, “representing the five continents,” the accompanying card breezily informed me as I leaned over, squinting at badges with the fair’s insignia in embossed relief.
I stood straight up, pressing my audioguide wand to my ear. “Five continents???” I hissed to Tom, who was a couple display cases away. “Did you know we haven’t settled this bet yet?” He was unaware as well. This basic fact, this elemental thing we teach tiny children to let them feel that they can quantify the world and hold it in their hands even a miniscule amount, this is something we can’t agree on. We have regular trade talks with countries that inventory the earth differently. God, I love traveling. This is not the kind of stuff that comes out in casual conversations with people you’ve known forever.***
The interior at this point was perfectly 50s-innovation thematic, original to the event. These stairs are so charming you’d practically dance on down them to your basement nuclear shelter.
But after that, it got perfectly… wonderfully… weird.
The lights dimmed. People grew quieter.
And suddenly… we emerged into this.
No, let’s discuss this
Ok, what the hell is that?
Along with the sudden switch in décor, which moves from Tomorrowland’s rich pastels to an angry teenage nerd’s bedroom as decorated by Cyberdog and Spencer’s Gifts, the sound changes. It’s an immersive experience, this thing, with throbbing bass and enough moving staticky sounds to leave you feeling quite off-kilter.
And then we ascended one more escalator and found an explanation. It was a two-month art installation, an experience based on a short story about a ship’s AI system fighting off an invading virus while ending up unavoidably changed.
Here’s something I like about Europe: there are so many old, wonderful things there that they can do things like this in stride. It’s not that the US doesn’t do out-of-the-ordinary things with our Approved Historical Landmarks and Such, but I can’t imagine the White House covering a room in mirrors and simulating rain. I can’t even imagine the Space Needle, the philosophical sibling of the Atomium, attempting something like this. Yet the Atomium harbored a Cylon rave, and, last year, Versailles welcomed a variety of modern art, including lining the wall of one stately room with a 12-foot-tall brick of fallen leaves encased in chicken wire. They’ve existed long enough that they know that most ordinary things clean up just fine, in the end.
And then that’s the conclusion of part one of the tour. The audioguide informed me that it was time to head back downstairs… to the elevator line.
On the way there, winding down stairs (there are quite a lot; the Atomium is hard on people without a lot of mobility), we glimpsed this through locked glass doors.
In addition to I will someday share physical space with that thing, I occasionally get flashes of That is a thing I will do or have if I ever possess a ridiculous amount of money. I experienced that here. You, I thought at these little pods, you will someday be where I rest my eccentric, rich, weary head.
This is their daycare. Because the Atomium has a lot of spheres, and some of them are conference space. This is true.
Back at the ground level, we joined the elevator queue. Standing still did my back no favors, so I leaned on Tom as I pulled my heel toward my bum, hoping that stretching my angry, tightening muscles might get me through the rest of the day. I weighed whether it made sense to stand in this line, to go to the top of some tall thing that overlooked stuff I wasn’t familiar with. I have a resistance toward tall things; people spend their valuable vacation time going to the top of them without weighing whether it’s really the most interesting thing to do.
And then came a new piece of information:
We’d been lucky enough to have pretty great weather throughout the trip. It had felt a little close and humid out earlier, but I’m still jaded by 18 years of Midwestern summers. It turns out that I don’t recognize the indications of an oncoming European torrential rain.
“Will it even be worth it to get up there?” I whined. “What are we even going to see? We’ll be inside the thing I want to look at.” The first part of me that gets chased away with pain is my sense of casual sure-why-not adventure.
It took about an hour, time I was afraid would be better spent looking at artifacts from the Belgian comic book industry.
But in the end, we made the right choice by staying.
We crammed into an elevator like Vienna sausages, and the guide blithely told us about how fast it was and how impressive it once was… in about six languages. As Belgians do.
And then… oh.
The rain had stopped, but the sky was still thick, grey, and surly. The rest of the world was left with the intensified colors a good dousing can give them.
At certain angles, the Atomium’s spheres and their recently added steel plates blend in with the horizon while still reflecting and distorting it. It’s a beautiful thing – and genuinely, absolutely worth seeing from within. It may be nearly 60 years old, but it’s still capable of inspiring awe.
Also of inspiring weird little neighbors.
May I introduce you to Mini-Europe? Part of a neighboring complex of attractions meant to inspire tantrums in the children of visiting families, Mini-Europe is the centerpiece of a property that also includes a waterpark. Tom and I leaned over and identified the various places represented. We identified the Arc de Triomphe and the Coliseum, but we got stuck on “some airport, I guess?” and “is that a prison?”
I love miniature things, but I don’t understand the desire to pay 14 euros to walk around small buildings that are within a couple hours’ drive or train ride. I contain multitudes.
One last fun fact: the US Pavilion is one of the last buildings left from Expo 58.
And the US was kind enough to make a building that’s worth seeing, even more than 50 years later. The grandeur at most World Fairs was equaled only by how incredibly temporary and disposable the attractions were generally made to be. (Read The Devil in the White City for some insight into this, or consider the strange missing Ferris wheel axle from the 2004 St. Louis World’s Fair. Things were built to dazzle but not to last for very long, an interesting shared quality for events that were meant to showcase the future.
So it was good to see that the Atomium had company, and that it shared an origin with me. And it was good to see the Atomium at all, to spend part of my last day in Belgium at the first glimmering thing that had attracted me to it. Even if you don’t like novelty and relics as much as I do (a high bar to meet), it’s worth a stop. Particularly if you follow it with Belgian comics and one last beer outing, as we did.
I didn’t love Belgium. But I swooned for the Atomium, and so I ended my trip on a very satisfied note.
*Who am I kidding. There’s also number three: BEER. But more on that another day.
*** A quick Google tells me that six or seven are the most common answers. Lots of people (quite reasonably) lump Europe and Asia together. Belgium, at least at that point, considered the Americas to be one long, spindly continent too. Fair.