atomium awesomeness

The Soviet-looking, retro space-age, bright red and turquoise staircases did it for me, but the renovated Atomium in Brussels had me dashing about like a drunk squirrel trying to see everything all at once. Here are some postcards of the Atomium when it originally opened in 1958 for the Brussels World’s Fair:

While unfortunately I didn’t manage to get over to Brussels in time to see Rian and Woodrow’s exhibition, In Search of the Atom Style, there was still loads to look at. (You can look at Woodrow’s post about it here) This was the view above our heads just before we shoot up the central lift shaft. It felt like being swallowed up by a huge pipe organ:

The current exhibition, Ludic Modernism in Belgium, 1955-1963, featured pieces of furniture I remember well from my parents’ friends’ houses. It’s funny to see them in an exhibition context; it makes me look at them so differently and appreciate them more abstractly for their shapes, instead of viewing them as tedious things I had to sit on or next to, behaving myself, when I really wanted to be sprawling on their floor watching The Flinstones and The Jetsons on their television.

But I liked the optimistic, brightly coloured emphasis of this Ludic stuff over other modernist things I’ve seen. One of the placards in the exhibition explained the contrast:

Orthodox modernism advocated geometric rigour. It stemmed directly from the modern movement of the inter-war period. Marked by uncompromising simplicity, its forms were pure and strictly orthogonal.

Ludic modernism, on the other hand, preferred cheerful and decorative forms. Full of freshness and imagination, it flourished in the graphic arts and design as well as in architecture. Reflecting the prevailing optimistm of the times, its colours were joyful, its lines dynamic and its volumes airy.

The Atomium’s a temple celebrating humanity’s strides in space and science, with no trace of irony; I wish I could’ve been around to see what it was like when people first thought they might be able to put someone on the moon. I had a sort of false nostalgia for it, watching the Gagarin references in the German film Goodbye Lenin. And I caught a distinct whiff of it in the faded glory of Moscow’s VDNKh exhibition centre. It was achingly poignant, the way they had all this cool space stuff pushed into a corner to make way for kiosks selling mobile phones and office chairs.

Much like walking through Moscow’s VDNKh, there was a lot that was shambolic about the visit. While the structure itself was magnificent, the area around it was a total mess, making it feel like an neglected outpost in an urban distopic wasteland: no clear signage from the Metro station, a walk through a dodgy looking alleyway next to the cinema, a detour through tacky food kiosks, then a long trek over a slushy, hideous car park and across a busy road; a disorderly crush at the ticket office, a queue for an hour to go up the lift, and only two working toilets that stank to high heaven, with a flushed-faced attendant washing her mop in the sink. (They should have made the experience complete by having us wipe our bums with torn-up pages of Pravda.) We saw glimpses of a better world, though a chain link fence: a glistening new tram station, but it looked completely unused and inaccessible. A total fail for everything leading up to the Atomium, without even the faded grandeur of some of Moscow’s pavilions. But thank goodness for the Atomium, staunchly soaring into the air above it with marvelous flair.

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