John Körmeling

With a bit of luck, by the beginning of 2019 the Province of Groningen will have the biggest piece of art that John Körmeling has ever made. A huge work with a length of 6 kilometres, yet hardly noticeable, even if you’re standing right next to it. It’s called De Rechte Weg, the straight road. It’s 1.4 metres wide ‘so you can walk comfortably next to each other’, according to the artist, and it’s not just straight. It’s factually horizontal: it doesn’t follow the earth’s curvature. ‘It’s like a pencil on a soccer ball,’ Körmeling explains, always ready with a simple but catchy visual explanation. ‘Starting from either end, you first go down a bit and then back up again. The gradient is 70 centimetres, the eight of a kitchen table.’


Is walking on this straight road exciting? ‘It will at least be strange. You’ll see the slopes on the side of the road recede and then disappear. Further along they reappear, while the width of the road stays the same. You’re also dealing with another direction of gravity, at an angle instead of straight down. De Rechte Weg is not only Körmeling’s largest work, but also the project with the longest prelude. The first design dates back to the early 1980s. ‘I wanted to make a straight pier from Brabant to Zeeland. If it started horizontally in Hoogerheide and continued straight on, it would end up being 159 metres high. My idea was to use a paternoster lift to go up. From the top there’d be a view of Zeeland, water to the left and to the right, like a big headland, a natural pier.’ The Zeeland design never made it past the mock-up stage, but it did win Körmeling the Rotterdam- Maaskant prize for Young Architects in 1985. ‘And I hadn’t even built anything,’ he grins. He’s now known for his big sculptures like the Ha Ha Hi Hi neon at Schiphol Airport, or the square car that shows up regularly at museum exhibitions. ‘But I don’t consider myself an artist: I’m 100 per cent an architect. A real freak.’

draaihuis1 Johnkormeling


Körmeling’s studio in Eindhoven doesn’t look like a typical architect’s office. He lives and works in a former skipper’s pub next to a canal and across from the DAF Museum. The doorbell doesn’t work, instead the instruction ‘klep, klep’ (knock with the flap) is written on the mailbox. Inside, Körmeling leads us through a carelessly cut hole in the wall, a procedure that we would fashionably call a ‘life hack’, but to Körmeling it’s just the fastest way from A to B. And B is where he spends most of his time, always dressed in his dark blue cargo pants and sensible fleece sweater. This is his workplace and office. This is the place where the ideas from a brain that never quits are hatched. ‘I just cleaned up, or you wouldn’t have been able to come through,’ Körmeling says, weaving his way through tools, materials and models. In the middle of the space is a three-dimensional representation of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s depository building, which is in the process of being built. Körmeling is designing the visitor’s entrance for it. ‘When a school group or two buses of Japanese tourists arrive, they should all be able to put their stuff away and move along. That’s why I came up with a gallery that goes all the way around. It looks like a theatre. I want to make it all in plastic, including the coffee corner, lockers and even the vending machine. The depository building is about transparency, it’s actually one big showcase and I just continued along that line of thought.’



The depository building is ‘a formidable job’, Körmeling admits. But he proved to be capable of this kind of complex matter in 2010, when he built the Dutch pavilion for the World Expo in Shanghai. Happy Street was a rollercoaster with all kinds of typically Dutch buildings attached to it, from the Rietveld House to a terraced house. It’s no doubt the most important project in his career. ‘I worked on it exclusively for four years,’ says Körmeling. ‘In the beginning it wasn’t easy. The Chinese authorities didn’t want to give us a permit at first. It had no doors, so according to them it wasn’t a building. Eventually I was able to work with them very comfortably. Afterwards they even wanted to buy the rights to it. I loved that: selling the copyright to the Chinese.’ After ‘Shanghai’, Körmeling wanted to ‘do all the things I’ve always wanted to do’. At the top of his bucket list was designing a ‘religion- free calendar’. On this calendar, the year doesn’t start on the first of January, but on the day that Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, 21 July 1969. Körmeling has already worked out the days for the next 114 years. It is the sort of arithmetic he loves. He likes nothing better than to analyse the dimensions of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza in his spare time. ‘Not because someone asked me to, but just because I want to know.’ Körmeling usually works on four or five projects simultaneously. They are hugely diverse. His world map at the Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives) in The Hague, which shows the continents as squares with data streams running through them, has only recently been unveiled. And soon an album will be recorded using a harpsichord that he designed. And he’s very pleased with the bridge he designed a few years ago for the municipality of Tilburg: as a counterweight he used a copy of his teahouse in Breda. ‘When the bridge opens, the thing suddenly drops 6 metres and is suspended 4.5 metres above the ground,’ he grins. Tilburg is one of his frequent clients. Anyone who’s ever driven into the city knows the revolving house on the Hasselt roundabout. ‘There’s almost nothing of mine in Eindhoven, but I’m world famous in Tilburg. They’ve got guts. I think it’s because so many cartoonists live there. They call their work absurdist. But it’s actually surrealism. It’s great!’


This interview was published in WOTH issue No7 still available in our shop.