I’ve got to confess that when my little family was planning a city break to Brussels, we nearly wrote off the Atomium as an out-of-town destination that we didn’t need to include in our plans for our limited time. How fortunate that our subscription to Vintagexplorer delivered the latest edition to our doormat just in time to read their article about this iconic survivor from the 1958 Brussels Expo. It’s wonderful! Apparently, it had become very tired before a major overhaul in 2006 and I had a few doubts at first – although the building (is it a building, a construction, or just ‘the Atomium’?)is impressive enough in its own right to justify the short metrotram ride out of the City. We were ushered quickly into an enforced photoshoot with a bloke in a cartoon character suit with a definite ciggy aroma, then into the lift that took us straight up to the highest ‘globe’. Fair enough, but all one can do is walk around looking at vistas of the former exhibition site from inside a tallish (92m) building before being ushered back into the lift to go back down. So far, so average.

However, it’s when you get back to the ground floor, and head up the stairs to the exhibition areas that the Atomium really comes to life. Each globe contains a carefully designed display about the construction (or is it a building?) and its 1958 context. There are original photos, documents and items of ephemera aplenty, but all displayed so as not to obscure the surroundings. There was a sad contrast with the Royal Festival Hall in London, where the heritage display gives the impression of having been shoved in a dead corner. In one cabinet, we found all the ashtrays and dishes that Mrs Midcentury used to have in her collection without realising where they originated (and we managed to replace one of them the following day – but that’s another story and another post). The original fittings give no impression of having been ‘restored’, just preserved – particularly the staircases with their suitably atomic handrails, and a selection of paint colours straight out of a 1958 modernist catalogue. The connecting tubes are a joy in their own right – a mixture of endless straight staircases stretching apparently into infinity, and funky escalators, all unmarred by obtrusive modern signage (I suppose there must have been something around urging us not to commit some suicidal act in three languages, but I didn’t notice any).

Our visit was made more special by the newly-opened and aptly-named Plasticarium with its exhitition, Orange Dreams, running until 25 May – a riot of sinuous curves encompassing every aspect of day-to-day domestic and office life, all executed in – no prizes – orange plastic. I thought the odd Moulinex items that found their way into my Mum’s kitchen were pretty wild, but they were clearly the footsoldiers in this late 1960s invasion of tangerine plasticity. On our way back down to the ground and waiting 21st Century, I felt particularly envious of the Belgian schoolchildren who get to spend a night in the pods of the Kids’ Sphere, surely the most effective way imaginable of inculcating a love of midcentury design in one’s offspring. Oh yes, and the shop’s good, too.img151

You can find all the information you need on the Atomium’s website