Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Atomic Spidermen

Category: [Brussels] [Photoblog] [Lowlands Soul] [Timeless]

Symbols of World Fairs often outlive the Fair itself. The Eiffel Tower in Paris was originally built for the 1889 World Fair (Universal Exposition), in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. The Industrial Revolution in Europe brought about a new trend: the use of metallurgy in construction. Because of this, the engineer's role became increasingly important, in some cases melding with or rivaling that of the architect. The Eiffel Tower was intended to provide a showcase of contemporary engineering, standing tall and proud for all to see. The Eiffel Tower was the triumphant statement of the fin de siècle, read Barbara Tuchman's Proud Tower.

In 1958, the Brussels World Fair wanted to make a similar statement. World War II ended 13 years before, a war out of which Belgium escaped fairly well. The unexpectedly swift liberation by the Allies of the largest part of Belgium in September 1944 saved most of its infrastructure and its industry. Ten years later, with a head start, Belgium's postwar economy was thriving again. A new age had started, called the atomic age. Opened by two destructive big bangs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the hope was then that peaceful nuclear energy would provide cheap and abundant energy in the future. Without its own natural energy resources, Belgium jumped early on the nuclear energy bandwagon. Still up till now most of its electricity is produced by nuclear reactors.

Apart from the atomic age, in 1957 started also the space age as Russia's Sputnik went into orbit. Commercial jet airliners reduced the flying time between continents from days to hours. The jet age had started too, although only the jet set could afford flying for a while. Computers were still far behind the horizon, but the promoters of Belgium's Universal Exposition in 1958 (the first one after New York's 1939 Fair) wanted to make an optimistic statement about the brave new high tech future, like the Parisians did in 1889. Expo 58 also wanted to be a showcase of the Belgian construction and technology industry. So the symbol of the atomic and the space age would be a giant replica of an iron crystal molecule, 165 billion times magnified. It would have 9 colossal spheres, 18 m in diameter, towering 102 m over the Fair grounds. The covering of the steel framework would be done in aluminum, the backbone material of commercial jet liners. Since 1958, the Atomium has been a major landmark in Brussels, apart from Manneken Pis and the medieval Grand Market.

The construction was intended only to last till the end of the Fair, then for 10 years after it. But many objected to the dismantling of this beautiful monument, and its decommissioning moment was postponed time after time. Since the Atomium had lost its shiny aspect over the years and some structural deficits were discovered, in 2003 a refurbishing project was planned, which started in March 2004, and will last till the end of 2005.

At the moment the spheres are almost covered totally with a new shiny skin. Construction workers suspended in cables on high cranes fill the joints between the panels that make up the skin of a sphere. This photo gallery is a report of their work, of the wharf, and of the almost-finished Atomium itself. I used my brand new Olympus E-300 8 Megapixel digital cam and an Olympus 40-150 (80-300 film equivalent) lens handheld.

The usual Creative Common License doesn't apply to these photos. They are fully copyrighted since it was a commissioned shoot, and they have been licensed to commercial stock photography agencies.
If the box below is empty, you are using Microsoft Internet Explorer. In that case, or if you want to view the gallery full-screen, click here, and here for the smaller images.


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