For at least one generation of Houston artists the name Nestor Topchy is virtually meaningless. His landmark contributions to Houston’s art scene, CSAW, Zocalo/TemplO, have all but faded into memory in the years since they were dismantled. For those in the arts community who came of age after the turn of the millennium Topchy, if he is known at all, is known mostly as the husband of Avant Garden owner Mariana Lemesoff.
And the fact that Topchy isn’t known to many people under the age of 40 speaks volumes about the lack of permanence in Houston, for to understand where Topchy is headed it’s necessary to understand where he has been and what he accomplished. When Topchy came to Houston in the mid 1980s it was a fundamentally different city. The streets of downtown were lined with shuttered businesses; the effects of the combined one-two punch of the bottom falling out of the oil market and the Savings and Loan scandal. Overlooking the, then under construction, George R. Brown Convention Center was the ill-fated Mercado del Sol, a planned commercial development on the scale of the Galleria but dedicated to the Hispanic community. The Mercado del Sol went bankrupt before construction was completed, and for many years became a monument to this city’s unquenchable greed.
The recession of the ’80s hit Houston harder than almost any other city in the country, personal bankruptcies reached a level that wouldn’t be seen for another 20 years. The homeless population exploded at a rate faster than anyone could keep track of, and that lent itself to rumors of judges and unfunded mental institutions across the state giving people one way bus tickets to the Bayou City. Into this perfect storm of urban blight and decay walked Topchy, with a newly minted BFA in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Like all young Turks before, and after, him Topchy came to town filled with the arrogance of youth, determined to make a name for himself and show the locals just how it’s done. And while he was at it he might as well pick up an MFA from UH in Sculpture. It didn’t hurt that, at that time, there were quite a few likeminded individuals reshaping the Houston art scene; people like Wes Hicks, who was part of the first generation of the now mythical Lawndale Annex and who helped found what would go on to be the legendary Commerce Street Arts Warehouse; and Rick Lowe, who would, almost a decade later, create Project Row House.
Topchy quickly established himself as one of the hottest young sculptors in Houston, the fact that he was living at CSAW and created the building’s iconic doors didn’t hurt his reputation either. But things were stressful, Topchy was in constant conflict with the other residents of CSAW, he felt there was too much socializing and not enough serious work being done. So in 1989 he and Lowe, along with Dean Ruck and a then little known painter named Jim Pirtle, started up their own “social sculpture” project on a few acres on Feagen Street owned by then Harris County District Attorney Johnny B. Holmes, Jr.
To call the space pregnant with possibilities would be an exercise in overly-optimistic understatement, what descriptions of the space that have survived describe it as something closer to an unpaved lot filled with a cluster of debilitated tin shacks, warehouses and a 5,000 square foot barn. All of which could be had for the low, low price of $400 per month; remember it was the ‘80s.
Out of the remnants of a former freight depot turned chop shop Topchy and company created an alternate reality that used art, in all its myriad forms, as a cornerstone. The newly christened TemplO, the capital ‘O’ representing the pregnant void, came to be known as a venue that embraced the new and strange. Many experimental plays by then emerging artists, who themselves would go on to define the Houston arts scene, like Nick Cooper and Jason Nodler, were staged there. It was a place known for the Sunday brunches and performance art pieces that have more then faded into hazy, booze filled memories that are only dimly recalled by those who were there, or claim to be, over mid-afternoon drinks at various Montrose dive bars.
As with any social experiment TemplO became too top heavy and started changing. Over the years the first wave moved on, leaving to explore their own unique visions. Ruck bought a house, Pirtle founded Notsuoh and Lowe created Project Row House. But Topchy stayed and started inviting a different, stranger crew to take up residence in whatever was available. School buses, trailers, packing crates—almost anything that could be lived in, was. Around 1993 Topchy decided to change the name, and the focus, TemplO became Zocalo, a reference to Mexico City’s large public square, and start a performance company.
The first trip for the Zocalo Performance Arts Company was a 1994 trip to New York City, which was followed a year later by a much grander “Mobile Village Tour” that, in its description, sounds like an offshoot of Road Rules. The idea was to put 10 artists on a barely maintained bus, send them on a tour that takes them through New Orleans, Raleigh, Baltimore, Washington D.C., New York City and Boston so they could “incite interactive collaborations with artists from the host community.”
In what some would call a miracle, especially since the brakes on the bus are rumored to have gone out in Washington D.C., all 10 managed to make it home alive. Zocalo manged to survive through the end of the Clinton Administration into the first of the Bush years before Houston’s resurgence real estate market caught up with it. In 2001, 13 years after TemplO first opened its doors, Holmes sold the two acre lot on Feagan Street. However, by that time Topchy had already outgrown, or grown tired of, Zocalo and was ready to move on.
As he tells it, a few years after taking down the iconic TemplO tower the seeds of his next big idea were planted. “I was playing around with blocks as modules and made this hemisphere. I found this underlying pattern that was very counterintuitive but very simple,” says Topchy. He goes on to explain that the next realization hit him when he passed a container yard and saw the abundance of abandoned shipping containers.
Topchy says that he approached some architect friends of his to create a rendering of his model. “They all said, ‘No problem. This’ll be easy,’ but the computers couldn’t do it. Finally my friend Si Dang was able to do it by manually inputting the coordinates, he said it was difficult but he loved it,” says Topchy. Part of the difficulty comes from the very nature of the design.
The modules are stacked in a circular pattern with two modules supporting a module above them; and so on, until the top—where the last two modules touch. Because of the organic, almost insect like, nature of the design the project was quickly christened HIVE: Houston and because of the nature of construction, using repurposed post consumer material, it quickly attracted national attention on sustainability and green living websites and blogs.
The sustainability aspect of the project one of the key elements as HIVE: Houston Executive Director Heidi Vaughan explained in an e-mail, “We are re-using shipping containers which, due to the imbalance of international trade in the US, would otherwise be taking up space in one of the many container yards throughout the country.” Vaughan goes on to write that the HIVE board is committed to the concepts of green/sustainable living and are planning on implementing solar power sources, geo-thermal HVAC systems, grey water recycling and water reclamation projects.
Vaughan goes on to detail how HIVE will be “an affordable, inhabitable work of art as a community” that is intended to “recapture an urban space using sustainable and renewable energy practices, innovative technology, and design.” This first-of-its-kind project in Houston is also being created to “meet the needs of the growing population of the city with affordable, walkable, and sustainable living, working, and entertainment spaces” that will offer “a safe, urban experience, near public transportation, with great aesthetic value, low cost and convenience.”
For Topchy, HIVE is primarily a work of art that has its legacy in not just his own work with TemplO/Zocalo, but in the work of sculptors like 20th Century minimalist Donald Judd and Reniassance architect Fillippo Brunelleschi. “We are trying to make a paradigm and it’s going to take time, but in the long run we aren’t building a cathedral for 300 years,” says Topchy.
HIVE Houston will be hosting What is HIVE Houston, an awareness benefit concert Friday April 29 at 8 p.m. at Avant Garden, 411 Westheimer, for more information check hivehouston.org or call 832-519-1429.