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The Brussels Atomium and the popular appeal of 'humanized' nuclear science

Rika Devos (UGent) , Charlotte Nys (UGent) and Michel Provost
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Abstract
The 1958 Brussels’ World’s Fair had as its centerpiece a ‘metal crystal’ blown up 156 billion times the actual size to form a monumental image of the nuclear age. This Atomium, a 102 meters high steel structure, clad in shiny aluminum, provided a symbol of post-war optimism about a technology-based and more humane future. The building accommodated a popularizing and international exhibition on the benefits of nuclear science to man. Retained after the fair as a permanent feature of the Brussels’ landscape, the Atomium is still an exhibition building and is, in fact, one of the most visited Belgian buildings. Notwithstanding its popular appeal and its charged symbolism, the financial and technical means for an urgently needed renovation – begun in September 2004 – were mustered with difficulty. The paper sets out the motivations of the Atomium’s creators and raises the question of their relevance today. Close readings of the technical inventions, its formal concepts and of the ways the building was communicated to the public, offer diverse tools for considering the building’s status as an icon of a proto-pop sensibility, an Atomic Style. Taking in account the harsh criticism of architectural historians ever since 1958, the Atomium is analyzed ‘as a building’ and ‘as an image.’ In hindsight, the context of the end of post-war recovery and the awakening consumer society conflicted the humanized technical utopia promoted by the Atomium. The building’s technologist achievements and peaceful message came to be resented as evidence of so-called naïve modernism.
Keywords
Expo 58, Atomium, architecture, engineering, criticism

Citation

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Chicago
Devos, Rika, Charlotte Nys, and Michel Provost. 2008. “The Brussels Atomium and the Popular Appeal of ‘Humanized’ Nuclear Science.” In International Docomomo Conference, 8th, Proceedings, ed. Theodore HM Prudon and Hélène Lipstadt, 421–428. New York, NY, USA: Docomomo US.
APA
Devos, Rika, Nys, C., & Provost, M. (2008). The Brussels Atomium and the popular appeal of “humanized” nuclear science. In T. H. Prudon & H. Lipstadt (Eds.), International Docomomo Conference, 8th, Proceedings (pp. 421–428). Presented at the 8th International Docomomo Conference : Import-Export : Postwar Modernism in a Expanding World : 1945-1975, New York, NY, USA: Docomomo US.
Vancouver
1.
Devos R, Nys C, Provost M. The Brussels Atomium and the popular appeal of “humanized” nuclear science. In: Prudon TH, Lipstadt H, editors. International Docomomo Conference, 8th, Proceedings. New York, NY, USA: Docomomo US; 2008. p. 421–8.
MLA
Devos, Rika, Charlotte Nys, and Michel Provost. “The Brussels Atomium and the Popular Appeal of ‘Humanized’ Nuclear Science.” International Docomomo Conference, 8th, Proceedings. Ed. Theodore HM Prudon & Hélène Lipstadt. New York, NY, USA: Docomomo US, 2008. 421–428. Print.
@inproceedings{666284,
  abstract     = {The 1958 Brussels{\textquoteright} World{\textquoteright}s Fair had as its centerpiece a {\textquoteleft}metal crystal{\textquoteright} blown up 156 billion times the actual size to form a monumental image of the nuclear age. This Atomium, a 102 meters high steel structure, clad in shiny aluminum, provided a symbol of post-war optimism about a technology-based and more humane future. The building accommodated a popularizing and international exhibition on the benefits of nuclear science to man. Retained after the fair as a permanent feature of the Brussels{\textquoteright} landscape, the Atomium is still an exhibition building and is, in fact, one of the most visited Belgian buildings. Notwithstanding its popular appeal and its charged symbolism, the financial and technical means for an urgently needed renovation -- begun in September 2004 -- were mustered with difficulty.
The paper sets out the motivations of the Atomium{\textquoteright}s creators and raises the question of their relevance today. Close readings of the technical inventions, its formal concepts and of the ways the building was communicated to the public, offer diverse tools for considering the building{\textquoteright}s status as an icon of a proto-pop sensibility, an Atomic Style. Taking in account the harsh criticism of architectural historians ever since 1958, the Atomium is analyzed {\textquoteleft}as a building{\textquoteright} and {\textquoteleft}as an image.{\textquoteright} In hindsight, the context of the end of post-war recovery and the awakening consumer society conflicted the humanized technical utopia promoted by the Atomium. The building{\textquoteright}s technologist achievements and peaceful message came to be resented as evidence of so-called na{\"i}ve modernism.},
  author       = {Devos, Rika and Nys, Charlotte and Provost, Michel},
  booktitle    = {International Docomomo Conference, 8th, Proceedings},
  editor       = {Prudon, Theodore HM and Lipstadt, H{\'e}l{\`e}ne},
  isbn         = {978-0-9820365-1-8},
  language     = {eng},
  location     = {New York, NY, USA},
  pages        = {421--428},
  publisher    = {Docomomo US},
  title        = {The Brussels Atomium and the popular appeal of 'humanized' nuclear science},
  year         = {2008},
}