The Atomium 1958, Brussels , Avenue de l’Atomium, 1020 Bruxelles, Belgium, 102 meters. By Andre Waterkeyn.

Have you ever wondered what a crystal of iron would look like magnified 160 billion times? Well I have, so thank goodness for Monsieur Andre Waterkeyn who designed the stunning Atomium, constructed in 1958, for the World’s Fair in Brussels. Now I know what a huge iron crystal looks like and I have to say I really like it. To be fair to Atoms, it is really a molecule, each sphere represents an atom.The 1958 World’s Fair was the last of the four World Fairs to be held in Belgium. Contructed for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, the Atomium was only supposed to last six months, the duration of the event.

An aerial photograph of The Atomium 1958, Brussels

An aerial photograph of The Atomium 1958, Brussels

An engineer in the nuclear age

Andre Waterkeyn was born 1917 in Wimbledon, London and died in Brussels in 2005 at the age of 88. In a moment of quite delightful synchronicity Double Stone Steel are building a new stainless steel coloring factory in Wimbledon.

In 1954 Waterkeyn whilst working for Fabrimetal a group of metal fabrication companies, was asked to design a building that would showcase Belgian engineering skills to the world. An iron crystal magnified 165 billion times was deemed the way to go.

Three industrial groups – the Federation of the metalworking, mechanical and electrotechnical engineering industries, the Belgian blast-furnace and steel working group and the Union on non-ferrous metals industries – joined together in a non-profit-making organisation and appointed André Waterkeyn as Managing Director.

The Atomium was a monumental image of the then new and exciting nuclear age. During the fair, the Atomium held an exhibition showing the benefits of nuclear science to mankind. This was the age where the boffins around the world were convinced that nuclear science would completely remove the need for anyone work or for any other type of power generation system. Electricity would be so cheap that it would be free to all. The world would find its Utopia at long last. The Nuclear age was going to be, safe, cheap and simple. Nuclear power would save the world. I am not sure the general public were convinced as the memory of the nuclear booming in Japan were very fresh.

The Atomium’s physical structure

The Atomium consists of nine spheres, each sphere having a diameter of 18m.The spheres are connected by twenty, 23m long metal tubes, the tubes have a diameter 3.3m. The tubes allow the visitor to move between the spheres using escalators or staircases. The structure stands on three pillars known as ‘bipods’. In 1958 the Atomium had the fastest lift in Europe, reaching speeds of 5 meters per second

Cover to Paris Match

Cover to Paris Match

The original construction of the frame was in steel, with 10-12mm aluminium panels. The spheres’ aluminium is an alloy called ‘Peraluman 15’ which was then covered with a thin sheet of aluminium called ‘reflectal’, which was then highly polished. In 2004 the building was shut to the public to be refurbished. The original aluminium panels being replaced by polished stainless steel panels. Over 6000 honeycombed panels were fabricated in 1.2mm, grade 316L with a rock wool insulation core and a 1mm galvanised interior skin. The building looks wonderful and should stand for many many years.

“The story of the Atomium is, above all, one of love, the love that the Belgians have for an extraordinary structure symbolising a frame of mind that wittily combines aesthetic daring with technical mastery. The appearance of the Atomium is unusual and unforgettable. It has a rare quality of lifting everyone’s spirits and firing their imagination.”

– Diane Hennebert, former director of the Atomium, 2008
Close up of one of the Atomium’s spheres

Close up of one of the Atomium’s spheres

We take a visit to this triumphant installation in Seville.


Seville is one of my very favourite cities in Spain, with some of the very best local food and wine to be found anywhere in Andalusia. Seville is a traditional stopping off point for travellers on their way to Portugal. Seville is an intimate but vibrant city with a population close to 700,000. The city is famous for it’s searingly hot in summers with average June/July temperatures being around 35-38 Centigrade. On a hot day 40 centigrade plus is not unknown.

Metropol Parasol - Redevelopment of Plaza de la Encarnacion, Seville, Spain

Metropol Parasol – Redevelopment of Plaza de la Encarnacion, Seville, Spain

Luckily over the 2200 years since Seville was founded, the Sevillianos have built many beautiful shady squares around the city, somewhere to enjoy a tapas, a cold beer or a tall glass of chilled, pale sherry (I recommend a Fino), shade during the day being provided by the large leafy ficus trees that frequently grow around the squares. The same ficus that most of us in northern Europe only experience as a fairly sad plant pot stuck in the corner of the office or the bedroom.

Jurgen Mayer-Hermann

In 2004 the city of Seville commissioned the Berlin based German architect and artist, Jurgen Mayer-Hermann to design one of the largest bonded wooden structures in the world (150m x 75m x 28m). The structure was to be built on the site of an old open air market, in Plaza de la Encarnacion, which was in a state of dilapidation.

Jurgen took his inspiration from the ficus trees that abound in the city. His intention was to develop a mixed use, multi level space that would be comfortable on a hot summers day and a location where tourists and the locals could mix. Somewhere to be outside, away from the sun.

Arup were appointed as consultant engineers and construction was by the Madrid based Sacyr Vallehermoso.

The initial budget for design and construction was indicated to be around 52 million Euros but as is common with these difficult one off type of projects, the final budget shot up closer to 86 million euros.

After completion in 2011, the light and airy space containing bars, restaurants, archaeological museum and a farmers market appeared, giving Seville a heart stopping, surprising urban development, that beautifully showcases Spanish culture and commerce, very close to the centre of Seville and bringing back life and vibrancy to the area.

The Spanish locals quickly took the structure to their hearts, naming it locally “Las Setas” or the mushrooms

The detailed timber construction of the Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain

The detailed timber construction of the Metropol Parasol, Seville, Spain


The structure is manufactured out of a glued Kerto- Q LVL material which is arranged to an orthogonal (right angles) grid of 1.50m x 1.50m. Over 3000 different wooden elements were manufactured at Metsä Wood building component factory in Aichach, Germany and in total 2500 m³ of the panel was produced to form an exceptional light weight and extremely strong building. The wooden structure is covered by a polyurethane coating, that will protect the bonded elements against sun and rain.

All the wood comes from sustainable northern forests, which being colder makes for slower growing trees and a stronger finished product.

The Metropol Parasol illuminated at night, Seville, Spain

The Metropol Parasol illuminated at night, Seville, Spain

A city landmark

In 2005, The Metropol Parasol won the third prize in the prestigious Holcim Foundation Award, for sustainable construction, with the jury saying:-

“This building is a genuine monument that stresses the importance of the marketplace in the city. It is an aesthetically pleasing response to the frequently criticised loss of public space,”

This is a wonderful space, you can climb to the top and on the walkways have a great views of this wonderful city, Metropal Parasol by Jurgen Mayer-Hermann

As Alfredo Mayor proudly stated on completion of the project, “With the patronage of the Seville City Council, the new Plaza de la Encarnacion has been converted into the contemporary urban centre of the city, a modern urban cathedral located within the largest historic centre of Europe. It is a space capable of offering a wide variety of cultural, recreational and economic options: an archaeological tour through the city’s ancient history, diverse leisure activities, an ideal location for encounters and commercial activity. And as a living space, a tourist destination, and a meeting place, it provides opportunities of identification and exchange for the city’s habitants.”

I have to agree with that and I congratulate the city of producing such an outstanding landmark.


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