The Crescent, seen from inside
In 2001, Nestor Topchy dismantled TemplO/Zocalo, his compound devoted to art and performance. Located on rented property in Rice Military, the land there had simply become too valuable for the rent that was being received.
The idea of a built locus for diverse art practices has never left Topchy's mind. In the past few years, he has been promoting a concept called HIVE, a huge art village made of surplus shipping containers. HIVE doesn't exist yet, but what does exist is Topchy's home just south of the North Loop. A long time work-in-progress that still looks like a construction site, Topchy has completed some buildings that amply demonstrate his ability to build impressive structures. HIVE has a lot of challenges, not least acquiring 10 acres of land inside Houston--preferably along Buffalo Bayou east of downtown. But after seeing what Topchy has done with just a couple of helpers on his own large property, I have no doubts about his ability to build the HIVE once all the other considerable hurdles have been surmounted.
But what's important about these buildings is not that they are proof of Topchy's ability to get the job done, but that they are arresting art environments. They exist to display art and to create art, but are also works of art in and of themselves. They are beautiful structures not quite like anything I've ever seen anywhere else.
The Crescent is the biggest of them (although another is being built that may be larger). Built with a curved, glassed-in space and a tin roof with overhanging eaves, it looks like a combination of vernacular southern architecture and a Victorian English greenhouse. It is quite simply beautiful. A large pond curves around it and Topchy describes the light at certain times of the day as reflecting off the pond lighting up the interior of the Crescent. I suspect that it's quite beautiful.
Inside the Crescent, the curved glass wall is meant to mimic the field of vision of one's eye. Indeed, if you stand against the back wall and look out, you can't encompass the whole curve all at once. (The photo at the top of this post is actually 11 photos stitched together.)
Modern architects love huge panes of glass, often custom made. But with its grid and small panes, the Crescent recalls an earlier architecture. It made me think of the Crystal Palace, built in London in 1851. The decorative door wouldn't look out of place in a fancy greenhouse built 140 years ago.
Adjacent to the Crescent is the Chapel Sculpturetecture. The exterior walls are tin (including some decorative stamped tin).
This tiny chapel seems to be a place of meditation and private worship. Inside there is a wood stove and a sink, and lining the walls are dozens of small portraits, painted in the style of Russian Orthodox icons. The figures are surrounded in gold leaf, the paint is egg temper, and they are sealed with linseed oil.
Chapel Sculpturetecture interior views
Of course, Russian icons had certain generic subject matters, almost always painted the same way. Topchy's thing is a little different--his icons depict real people, some living and some dead. About them all, Topchy writes, "The entire strand , because
they are presented all together as a growing corpus, is like a
social/cultural DNA, a portrait of community determined by transmission ,
i.e. I meet or am introduced to the sitters personally." Well, not all of them are folks Topchy has met. He even included an image of that old 20th century iconoclastic painter of icons, Kazimir Malevich.
Nestor Topchy, Bert Long
It was touching to see this image of Bert Long, so recently dead.
Nestor Topchy, Bas Poulos
And I liked seeing this one of emeritus Rice painting professor and my occasional breakfast compadre Bas Poulos. Recognizing faces was a big part of the fun of being in there.
But what I loved about Chapel Sculpturetecture was the peaceful setting for contemplation. It really is a holy place. In the cool quiet of the afternoon, communing with this shining silent community of saints, I could feel it--at least until my reverie was interrupted by other guests entering.
The Archetapas Shrine
The property is strewn with odd pieces of architectural sculpture, some of it mobile like the Archetapas Shrine (which looks like a piece of Jim Woodring architecture).
The Ohm Home
Or this little trailer/office called the OHM Home. It dates back from the TemplO days and was constructed out of packing crates. Topchy called it a gypsy wagon, which is apt, but I saw hints of Russian vernacular architecture in it, especially in the eaves.
Part of the reason we were there was to see a work in progress, the Multivarious Utilitarian Composition (MUC), and multi-container construction that will incorporate some of the principles of HIVE but on a much smaller scale.
plans for the Multivarious Utilitarian Composition
Right now it's just a couple of containers with a dogtrot, but they are functional. One even has plumbing and tenant. He plans to build a couple of MUCs on his property and rent them as studios to other artists (similar to Independence Art Studios up in Independence Heights).
In addition to the architecture, the property is decorated with art objects like this sphere painted International Klein Blue (the color created by French artist Yves Klein, an artist whose work greatly influenced Topchy). And after all this, it may surprise one to know that Topchy and his wife Mariana Lemesoff (owner of Avant Garden on Westheimer) live in an ordinary house on the property. Despite the multitude of structures there, it doesn't seem cramped--in fact, there seems like plenty of room to grow--more water features, more buildings, more art. (Topchy's property is more than an acre.)
Topchy holding forth
I have expressed skepticism about HIVE in the past. My concerns remain--there is something too inward-looking about the HIVE. Topchy spoke of how the basic plan of the HIVE was related to many human structures throughout history, and I instantly thought of the medieval walled town, whose walls were there to keep barbarians away. But here there is no barbarian horde at the gate--just fellow Houstonians. To me HIVE may serve to isolate artists from the ebb and flow of the city in which they live. It may end up more like a isolated (if not gated) suburban community, a Woodlands of art, rather than a vital artistic center.
A rendering of HIVE
But these objections have been purely academic up to now because I didn't expect HIVE to actually be built. Despite the significant obstacles that still remain, though, I now feel confident that it can be built. What Topchy has done with two assistants on his own property demonstrates to me that with he could, with sufficient help, build HIVE. And if HIVE is to be built, the issues I bring up are no longer theoretical. They are problems to be addressed. And this is the point when they become solvable.
There is a HIVE timeline, but what I'm looking for is a press release that states that the land for HIVE has been acquired. That will be a key moment in its development from idea to reality.