The courage of others

Brussels has certainly charmed me in the short time we have been here. We had the opportunity to wander more of its neighbourhoods today en route to a garden Sam had wanted to see. The only problem was, he couldn't find it with his map and GPS, and didn't know its name to be able to ask a local. After wandering around for a while, I resorted to looking it up online. It was only open every two years.

So we walked to the closest metro station in order to head to our second destination for the day a bit sooner than anticipated. The attraction was the Atomium, a gigantic building and sculpture to the north of the city. It was created as the centrepiece of the world expo in 1958, and is made up of nine large silver orbs connected by arms in a cube shape, with the ninth sphere in the centre. It makes a hell of an impression on the skyline, and was part of a two hundred hectare block that was filled with futuristic showcase buildings from many other countries too. It had something like fourteen million visitors in the four months it was open. It would have been truly astonishing.

Watching the footage of the construction, you really got a sense of the technical and engineering achievement. Built over fifty years ago, and before computers, they designed and crafted a weird, angular, top-heavy, futuristic building. All the arms connecting the spheres contain walkways, and they all are hollow with rooms and often multiple levels. They have expositions in the space, and are currently showing a water conservation exhibition that was fine, if not spectacular. That didn't sour the experience, and neither did a unremarkable view from the top observation level. What was more interesting was the structure itself, the feeling of being in it, and marvelling at its construction.

The escalator down was fantastic. For reference, the arms connecting the spheres are very steep, over forty-five degrees at least and probably a lot more. Thus, coming down it feels like you're always on the verge of falling forward, and when you start to think about it, it's probably a little scary. With that established, picture the last descent in near darkness, but with each horizontal strut you pass under lined with a light strip. They flash and spin in synchronised colours and patterns, and of course you can see a whole row of them beneath you as you descend. It's like accelerating to warp speed, taking LSD and falling into a black hole all at once. It was amazing.

It is so unfathomable to me how all these ancient buildings were built. Three hundred years ago, people managed to design, fund and construct a palace. And they did it all over the world, many times over. People were dangling four storeys up on little more than rope and good luck. How many man hours does it take to make something like that? How many people died, broke bones, wore out knees and backs? It's hard enough to watch the men with their welding torches and safety harnesses in 1958, let alone imagine how they did it two hundred years earlier. It takes a certain kind of madman to be able to dream it, and a scarier kind to make it happen.