October 19: The Future, Today (Yesterday)!

2016/10/19 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1958 the Exposition in Brussels closed.

Reflecting the multi-lingual nature of the city, the Brussels Expo, held from April to October, had lots of great names: Brusselse Wereldtentoonstelling or Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles.  The first major world’s exhibition following World War II, the Brusselers had a certain responsibility to show Europe modernizing and healing after the horrific war.  Looking back, the chosen theme of “peace through technology” might seem a questionable choice, but there it is.  Virtually all the pavilions–displays by nations as well as big companies–indulged in a futuristic view of modernity as a cultural/social/economic panacea.  (Only Thailand, it seems, missed the message.)  There was a slick, shiny and pointy Phillips Electronics pavilion by Corb and his Greek-French protegé Iannis Xenakis, a tall tube of curved glass full of concrete cantilevers by Manufacture Belge de Lampes Electriques that looked to be straight outta the Werkbund,  and even more cantilevers from Yugoslavia.  The Cold War played out through an architectural face-off: a glassy rotunda from the Americans (popular among fair-goers for its novelty, the ice cream cone), which was dwarfed by Russia’s big glass box (dominated by a giant sculpture of Lenin–maybe as memorable as the ice cream, for different reasons).

But nothing was as modern as the Atomium, built by the Belgians as the central monument for the Expo.  Designed by British-born Belgian engineer André Waterkeyn, the crazy structure is a 355-foot tall model of an iron crystal 165 billion times bigger than life.  It comprises nine steel spheres connected by tubes of escalators (which don’t make The Future look like an intimidating place, no not at all), easily whizzing guests through the exhibits.  Its creator’s intent–an illustration of “the peaceful use of atomic energy for scientific purposes” is the most monumental irony of the fair–then again, this was a modern vision, and looking back at what happened in Japan in 1945 was ancient history by then.

How the Belgians would try and create future-world without the input of their national treasure Hergé is a regrettable, if understandable, oversight; still, the choice of an engineer and “economic director” for a federation of metallurgical companies to design the central monument of the Expo, rather than an architect, is likewise regrettable, yet sadly understandable given the context.  On the other side of Brussels, in Ixelles Cemetery, Victor Horta rolled over in his grave.

Image: the Atomium goes disco at night (from this source)


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You are currently reading October 19: The Future, Today (Yesterday)! at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.


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