Expo ’58

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Atomium ashtrayOne of the things I remember growing up was a small metal and plastic souvenir that my Gran and Grandad used to have. It spent most of its life safely out of child’s reach on a shelf above the dining room door along with various other odds and ends that they’d collected on their travels (and that I really wish I’d had the gumption to ask them about whilst they were still here..).

Anyway, every time we visited, without fail, I would ask if this wonderful object could be brought down so that I might admire it… The souvenir was a model of the Atomium in Brussels, the center piece of their Expo 1958 extravaganza. It’s long since disappeared, probably to a charity shop or in the bin knowing my Gran (who was the least sentimental of people I’ve ever known). I haven’t thought of it for at least 30 years, but after a quick look through the internet I’m pretty sure it looked like the one above…

expo58The reason for this mini bout of nostalgia is that I’ve just read Jonathan Coe’s rather fine novel of the same name. Part cold war spy parody, part comedy of errors, part unrequited love story, Expo 58 conjures up post war life at the end of the 1950’s, which as any one who reads this blog might tell you, is where my interests lie…

Expo ’58 was the first such post World War 2 event, and came at an very interesting time in world history. The horrors and enforced austerity of the Second World war were finally beginning to fade across Europe, allowing its citizens to begin to think about the future, rather than dwell on the past. At the same time however, political instability in various regions was creating it’s own new set of global concerns: The Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold war was in full effect, the various wars across south east Asia and Vietnam in particular were escalating, whilst recent conflicts in The Suez, Hungary and North Korea had all contributed to a growing feeling of unease and insecurity.

bruxelles58-bigIt was always naive to suggest that a six month long party, at which more than 50 countries attempted to distill their very essence into a purpose designed, temporary pavilion located within 500 acres of prime city center land in Brussels was ever going to address or solve these huge political differences, but one can’t help but admire the determination and commitment that drove the participants to make it such a hugely successful event with over 41 million visitors passing through the gates…

Interestingly despit ethis huge success and popularity of Expo 58, Coe highlights the paucity recognition that it has received over the years. He references a number of recent post war social histories (Dominic Sandbrook’s Never Had it so Good and David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain) that completely fail to make any reference to it, and I would also add Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain to that list.

Coe’s book and the memory of my grandparents little souvenir (and the implication that they went there of course) has fired a desire to look further into this event. I’ve written about Expos several times before (Monorails at the New Your Fair of 1964  and   Basil Spence’s pavilion at Expo 67) and I’m unquestionably drawn to the idea of trying to represent a country and its culture with(in) a single building…

A future post (probably centering on the amazing Atomium itself) is more than likely, but until then, I’ll offer you a selection of stylish graphics and images from Expo ’58, and a recommendation to read Mr. Coes’ entertaining and (for me anyway) thought provoking novel…

WEB202997_EXPO_58_foto_09_m

Expo 1958 paviljoen van Engeland / United Kongdom

ATB3

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