By Lisa Gray
November 23, 2012
The wildest, most interesting thing about HIVE, the wildest, most interesting development plan in Houston, is this: It might actually get built.
“A master-planned, artist-centric utopia,” a museum catalog called the concept a few years ago, when artist Nestor Topchy displayed early plans as part of the “No Zoning” show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. That still seems about right.
At the center of Topchy’s dream would rise the “inner hive,” a seven-story hemisphere made of shipping containers, 148 of them, spiraling up a lacy metal ramp. Each container would be remodeled to serve as a studio for an artist, writer, yogi, dancer or anyone performing a “positive intellectual or spiritual activity which can be done quietly.”
Around that inner hive would buzz “the bazaar”: 44 three- and four-story buildings also made of shipping containers. The upper stories would hold one- and two-bedroom apartments. The ground floor would be devoted to soulful little businesses of all sorts: artisans’ shops, bakeries, restaurants, galleries, architecture studios, spay-and-neuter clinics, a farmers market, a grocery store, a Laundromat, a Mexican mercado.
Atop the outer square of buildings, there’d be a chain of industrial-looking rooftop gardens, forming a rooftop park something like New York’s High Line. There’d be an amphitheater and a garden tower, a low-power FM radio station, cooking classes, solar panels and lots of art everywhere. There wouldn’t just be connections to the Buffalo Bayou hike-and-bike trail. There’d also be a water connection to Buffalo Bayou itself: A moat surrounding the inner hive would connect to the bayou; inhabitants could commute by canoe.
Really: A moat.
And really: It might actually get built.
The pregnant void
If HIVE does come into existence, it won’t be Topchy’s first development.
Michael Paulsen, Staff © 2012 Houston Chronicle
Nestor Topchy talks about his inspiration for HIVE, a real-estate development scheme conceived by Topchy, at his studio, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, in Houston. HIVE will consist of a giant beehive-shaped spiral made of shipping containers and cater to artists and small businesses. Nestor Topchy’s scheme has been exhibited as art, but now the development team is in negotiations for a site owned by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. ( Michael Paulsen / Houston Chronicle )
In the late ’80s, Topchy and another young artist, Rick Lowe, were driving around west of downtown – Dumpster-diving, maybe – when they noticed a hunk of abandoned-looking real estate: 5223 Feagan, a former freight truck depot. Basically, it was a two-acre pasture with a bunch of tin buildings and warehouses. It was what they’d been looking for.
The land, it turned out, belonged to Johnny B. Holmes Jr., then Harris County’s hang ‘em-high district attorney. During the oil bust, no one was yet interested in filling the West End with luxury townhouses. And Holmes was happy to rent the property to Topchy for $400 a month.
Topchy and Lowe recruited other young artists, guys like Dean Ruck and Jim Pirtle. Over the decade, the place took on different names: Meaux’s Bayou, Zocalo and finally, TemplO. Except for Topchy, the cast of arty characters kept changing. But it was always distinctly its own place, a center of Houston’s rowdy young art-world fringe. It was full of testosterone, parties, sculpture, junk, poetry, rusty metal and performance art. It was a place of crazy freedom.
Some of the art made there was highly serious; some of it was junk; and sometimes it was hard to tell. As Brad Tyer wrote in the Houston Press in 2001, “Objects that may or may not be sculpture litter the yard.” Jim Pirtle’s performance art often involved smearing, eating or barfing mayonnaise. Topchy, though mainly a painter and sculptor, sometimes performed as Spunky the Anti-Clown or as rapper M.C. Poodle. Sometimes the gang would erupt in impromptu collaboration, like a Pirtle-driven movie in which the guys acted out “Forrest Gump” scene by scene, lip-synching the words as it played on a nearby VCR.
The arty young guys knew how to weld, and the place grew haphazardly, sprouting improbable structures on a whim. The property’s old truck-washing station turned into a theater, and a former Department of Corrections transport bus became the Zocalo Mobile Village, used for whacked-out road trips like the “Texas Free Dumb Tour” of the East Coast in 1993. Led by Topchy, the guys built a homemade drive-in movie theater. They dug ponds and even outfitted one fountain made from hundreds of beer bottles. Most memorably, Topchy erected a five-story metal pagoda, the temple that led to the name TemplO. The O was the important part of that name: circular, reflecting Topchy’s love of circles; and also, he said, about “the pregnant void.”
By 2001, gentrification set in, and Topchy lost his lease. People who’d known the place were sad to see it go, but everyone agreed that its giddy heyday was long since past. Its buildings, now half empty, no longer fizzed with crazy energy. The void was no longer pregnant, just a plain old void.
Michael Paulsen, Staff © 2012 Houston Chronicle
A rendering of HIVE, a real-estate development scheme conceived by Nestor Topchy, at his studio, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, in Houston. HIVE will consist of a giant beehive-shaped spiral made of shipping containers and cater to artists and small businesses. Nestor Topchy’s scheme has been exhibited as art, but now the development team is in negotiations for a site owned by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. ( Michael Paulsen / Houston Chronicle )
But already art-world observers were saying that the most important art produced at Meaux’s/Zocalo/TemplO probably hadn’t been sculpture or performance art or poetry – it had been the place itself. And as a place-cum-artwork, it seemed to inspire its residents to go out and create their own similar art/places: These days Rick Lowe is best known as the founder of Project Rowhouses; and Jim Pirtle, as the proprietor of Notsuoh, the coffeeshop/bar/happening on Main Street.
That idea of a place as an artwork was on Lowe’s mind around the time that Topchy was deconstructing TemplO, taking apart and hauling away any pieces worth saving. “If you really want to look at Nestor’s major work,” Lowe told Brad Tyer, “from my view, it is to look at that whole thing, the TemplO/Zocalo thing. From the perspective of his kind of compulsive habit of just making [stuff], building [stuff]. I mean he literally built that. There was one, two structures on that site, with a couple of little sheds, and [the rest] is just Nestor’s compulsiveness. Just weld some stuff up, just keep going. … I think when you start dealing with work like that, that’s about the kind of art action, you can’t hold those things and preserve those things. They’re tied to time, place, situation, circumstances, individuals, all this stuff. And you can’t hold that.”
Team of grown-ups
In October, the HIVE crew made a formal presentation to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Essentially, the crew proposed a lease-to-purchase deal in which the Partnership would eventually sell them the site they covet: 10 scruffy acres on the bayou, at 501 N. York, in the East End. Ann Olson, the partnership’s president, says she plans to present it to the partnership’s board soon. Though it’s far from a done deal, she’s taking it seriously – as seriously, for instance, as a similar deal proposed by the Houston Botanic Garden, which hopes to secure a different plot of Buffalo Bayou Partnership land.
As the words “formal presentation” imply, in many ways HIVE is vastly different from Topchy’s last stab at building a community. For starters, it involves planning – years of it, in fact. It also involves an extensive team of grownups: among them, Heidi Vaughan, an executive director from the world of marketing; architect Si Dang, whose résumé includes work on Bayou City Event Center and Phase V of Moody Gardens; project manager John Walker, whose previous work with a shipping-container house appeared in Dwell magazine; and perhaps most astoundingly, business adviser Beryl Basham, a former Bank of America senior vice president.
For the Partnership, the HIVE crew prepared a spiral-bound book stuffed with a formal letter of intent, fold-out color site renderings and maps, a mission statement and a surprisingly detailed strategic plan. Appendix F got into the nitty-gritty of “Construction, Phasing, and Budgets.” Appendix G offered a detailed spreadsheet of expected costs. There was no talk of compulsion, no talk of just welding some stuff up, of just keeping going.
Formal as it was, though, on close read, that presentation book is full of longing. There are hints of missing the old arty fizz of TemplO and its sense of coming together to create a wild new thing. (HIVE’s slogan, for instance, is “It takes a village to build a village.”) But there’s a sense, too, that a village needs more than art; it also needs cooking classes, marketing and a business plan.
What moves me most is HIVE’s stated intention to survive – to be something that, unlike Meaux’s/Templo/Zocalo, endures. Appendix C notes that “all of us working to bring HIVE to life live in Houston and care about the future of the city for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.” And it talks, too, about HIVE’s physical durability, the shipping-container toughness that would help it survive hurricanes, floods and plain old aging.
But there’s also a very grown-up attempt to see that the community itself endures – that though the time, circumstances and individuals there might change, the funky, artsy place would evolve and survive. HIVE “is designed so that residents and visitors love it, and they will protect it,” the presentation declares. “It will last a very long time.”
This time, Topchy hopes to build something that he’ll never have to take apart and haul away.