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The Atomium
Atomium Belgium 1.jpg
Frontal view of the Atomium
General information
Architectural styleModernism
AddressSquare de l'Atomium / Atomiumsquare
B-1020 Laeken
Town or cityCity of Brussels, Brussels-Capital Region
Coordinates50°53′41″N 4°20′28″E / 50.89472°N 4.34111°E / 50.89472; 4.34111Coordinates: 50°53′41″N 4°20′28″E / 50.89472°N 4.34111°E / 50.89472; 4.34111
Antenna spire102 m (335 ft)
Design and construction
ArchitectAndré and Jean Polak
EngineerAndré Waterkeyn
Official website

The Atomium ( /əˈtməm/ ə-TOH-mee-əm) is a landmark building in Brussels (Belgium), originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair (Expo 58). It is located on the Heysel Plateau in Laeken, where the exhibition took place. It is now a museum.[1]

Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak,[1] it stands 102 metres (335 ft) tall. Its nine 18-metre-diameter (59 ft) stainless steel clad spheres are connected in the shape of a unit cell that could represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Tubes connecting the spheres enclose stairs, escalators and an elevator (in the central, vertical tube) to allow access to the five habitable spheres, which contain exhibit halls and other public spaces. The top sphere includes a restaurant which has a panoramic view of Brussels. The building was completely renovated between 2004 and 2006 by the companies Jacques Delens and BESIX.[2]

This site is served by Heysel/Heizel metro station on line 6 of the Brussels metro.


Construction and Expo 58[edit]

The Atomium was built as the main pavilion and icon of the 1958 World Expo of Brussels (Expo 58). In the 1950s, faith in scientific progress was great, and a structure depicting atoms was chosen to embody this. The Atomium's nine 18-metre-diameter (59 ft) stainless steel clad spheres depict nine iron atoms in the shape of the body-centred cubic unit cell that could for example represent α-iron (ferrite) crystal, magnified 165 billion times.[3]

The Atomium and cable car during the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair (Expo 58)

The construction of the Atomium was a technical feat. Of the nine spheres, six are accessible to the public, each with two main floors and a lower floor reserved for service. Tubes of 3 metres (10 ft) diameter connect the spheres along the 12 edges of the cube and all eight vertices to the centre. The central tube contains the fastest elevator of the time with a speed of 5 m/s (20 ft/s), installed by the Belgian branch of the Swiss firm Schlieren (subsequently taken over by Schindler). It allows 22 people to reach the summit in 23 seconds. The escalators installed in the oblique tubes are among the longest in Europe. The biggest is 35 metres (100 ft) long.

Three of the four top spheres lack vertical support and hence are not open to the public for safety reasons, although the sphere at the pinnacle is open to the public. The original design called for no supports; the structure was simply to rest on the spheres. Wind tunnel tests proved that the structure would have toppled in an 80 km/h (50 mph) wind (140 km/h (90 mph) winds have been recorded in Belgium). Support columns were added to achieve enough resistance against overturning.[4]

The Atomium, designed to last six months, was not destined to survive the 1958 World Expo, but its popularity and success made it a major element of the Brussels landscape. Its destruction was therefore postponed year after year, until the city's authorities decided to keep it. However, for thirty years, little maintenance work was done.

Renovation (2004–06)[edit]

Closeup of one of the spheres during the 2004–06 renovation

By the turn of the millennium, the state of the building had deteriorated and a comprehensive renovation was sorely needed. Renovation of the Atomium, carried by Belgian construction companies Jacques Delens and BESIX,[5] began in March 2004; it was closed to the public in October, and remained closed until 18 February 2006. The renovation included replacing the faded aluminium sheets on the spheres with stainless steel.

On 21 December 2005, the Atomium's new outdoor lighting was tested. The meridians of each sphere were covered with rectangular steel plates, in which LED lighting was integrated. The LED application illuminates the bulbs at night. The lights can also flash simultaneously or in turns at each meridian, symbolising the range of an electron around its core. In addition, the German industrial designer Ingo Maure created lighting objects and installations for the interior of the building.[6]

On 14 February 2006, the Atomium was officially reopened by then-Prince Philippe, and on 18 February 2006, it opened again to the public. The renovation cost €26 million. Brussels and the Atomium Association paid one-third of the costs, the Belgian government financed two thirds. To help pay for the renovation, pieces of the old aluminium plates were sold to the public as souvenirs. One triangular piece about 2 metres (7 ft) long sold for €1,000.[7] On the occasion of the reopening, a 2 euro commemorative coin depicting the building was issued, in March 2006, to celebrate the renovation.

Though the Atomium depicts an iron unit cell, the balls were originally clad with aluminium. Following the 2004–06 renovation, however, the aluminium was replaced with stainless steel, which is primarily iron. Likewise, while the subject of Atomium was chosen to depict the enthusiasm of the Atomic Age, iron is not and cannot be used as fuel in nuclear reactions.


Of the six spheres accessible to the public:[8]

  • the bottom sphere is reserved for permanent exhibitions dedicated to the 1950s, the 1958 World Expo and the construction of the Atomium;
  • the second sphere hosts temporary exhibitions;
  • the third and central spheres have a versatile vocation and allow the organisation of various events, films, concerts, parties or conferences;
  • the top sphere, in addition to the panorama, holds a restaurant;
  • the sixth sphere is the kids' sphere, intended for the organisation of workshops of urban pedagogy, allowing children from six to twelve years to spend the night there.

Worldwide copyright claims[edit]

SABAM, Belgium's society for collecting copyrights, has claimed worldwide intellectual property rights on all reproductions of the image via the United States Artists Rights Society (ARS).[9] For example, SABAM issued a demand that a United States website remove all images of the Atomium from its pages.[10] The website responded by replacing all such images with a warning not to take photographs of the Atomium, and that A.S.B.L. Atomium will sue if you show them to anyone.[10][11] SABAM confirmed that permission is required.[10]

A photograph of the Atomium, censored due to lack of freedom of panorama rights at the time

Ralf Ziegermann remarked[12] on the complicated copyright instructions on the Atomium's website specific to "private pictures".[13] The organisers of Belgian heritage, Anno Expo[14] (planning the 50th anniversary celebrations of Expo 58), in the city of Mechelen announced a "cultural guerrilla strike" by asking people to send in their old photographs of the Atomium and requested 100 photoshoppers to paint over the balls.[15][16] SABAM responded that they would make an exception for 2008 and that people could publish private photographs for one year only on condition they were for non-commercial purposes.[15] Anno Expo later announced they had censored part of their own report due to "complications" and referred to a meeting they had with SABAM.[17] Mechelen's Mayor, Bart Somers, called the Atomium copyright rules absurd.[18]

From the Atomium's website, the current copyright restrictions exempt private individuals under the following conditions:[19]

This is the case where photographs are taken by private individuals and shown on private websites for no commercial purpose (the current trend for photo albums).
In accordance with legislation, usage rights for the image of the Atomium would naturally extend to 1 January 2076, in other words, the seventieth anniversary of André Waterkeyn's death.

In the summer of 2015, Belgian political party Open Vld, proposed a bill to enable freedom of panorama in Belgium. The bill was enacted into law in June 2016, allowing pictures of the Atomium, and other public buildings under copyright, to be legally distributed.[20][21]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Official website
  2. ^ "Belgium pavilion to serve up 'belgitude' (with fries)". MEED. 24 September 2020. Retrieved 14 January 2021.
  3. ^ "History". Atomium Foundation. Retrieved 29 July 2016.
  4. ^ "Atomium (1958) | Structurae" (in German). 24 February 2006. Retrieved 5 July 2012.
  5. ^ "Restauration de l'Atomium". Beliris (in French). Retrieved 14 January 2021.
  6. ^ Hof, Elisa von (22 October 2019). "Lichtdesigner Ingo Maurer ist tot". Der Spiegel (in German). Retrieved 22 October 2019.
  7. ^ "The Atomium restored". Veerle Pieters. 16 February 2006. Archived from the original on 23 September 2017. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  8. ^ "Atomium". Retrieved 25 November 2018.
  9. ^ "Such unlicensed reproduction and use of artwork on any Internet site with public access is considered in violation of the worldwide intellectual property rights of the rightsholders, including without limitation, copyright, trademark rights and moral rights". 14 July 2003. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  10. ^ a b c Simon Aughton (21 April 2008). "100 'photoshoppers' wanted to erase copyright building". MacUser News. Archived from the original on 25 May 2008. 'Since its creation, the Atomium is a copyrighted monument and any reproduction of its image in a publication or on a website must be accompanied by a prior authorisation request to the rightholders or to Sabam,' a spokeswoman said.
  11. ^ "Atomium, The :: Boulevard du Centenaire, Brussels, Belgium". Glass Steel and Stone. Archived from the original on 13 March 2006. Even if you are an American and think you are protected by U.S. copyright law Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 120, you will still be sued.
  12. ^ Ralf Ziegermann (5 January 2008). "Atomium and Expo '58". The Cartoonist. Archived from the original on 12 May 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  13. ^ "Copyright photo". Official blog of the Atomium & Expo 58. 2008. Archived from the original on 1 July 2008. In the precise and exclusive case of information articles related to the festivities of the fiftieth birthday of the Atomium and of Expo 58, private pictures intended for non-commercial and non-promotional purposes, published in low resolution (max. 600 pixels wide / 72 dpi), are free from copyrights. However, the copyright © Sabam 2008 - must be mentioned.
  14. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 5 September 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  15. ^ a b "The balls of Brussels". embe. 10 April 2008. Archived from the original on 5 September 2008.
  16. ^ (in Dutch)
  17. ^ "Belangrijk bericht aan de bezoekers / inzenders / photoshoppers / lezers" (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 14 May 2008. Retrieved 28 May 2008.
  18. ^ Christophe Callewaert (9 April 2008). "Sabam in het nauw". Indymedia Belgium (in Dutch).
  19. ^ copyright, retrieved 26 March 2010.
  20. ^ "Selfies aan Atomium weldra helemaal legaal". Retrieved 27 March 2017.
  21. ^ "Moniteur Belge - Belgisch Staatsblad". Retrieved 27 March 2017.

External links[edit]

Media related to Atomium at Wikimedia Commons