Bringing Down the House

Nestor Topchy deconstructs his TemplO

The omens are plentiful: in the hands of a child, in the dearth of witnesses, in a solitary white balloon floating past in the hot blue sky. They are -- or they could be, if you care to look at things this way -- little signals, acknowledgements and fragments of meaning just slightly too apropos of the day's proceedings to be dismissed as accidental.

For one thing: Thirty-some-odd people were supposed to show up on the morning of Monday, March 12, to help Nestor Topchy dismantle the 60-foot tower that has lately served as the centerpiece of his two-acre compound on Feagan Street in the rapidly overdeveloping West End. Only three actually turned out, which, audience-wise, serves as equivalence to the declining draw that TemplO -- as a public performance space -- has demonstrated in the five years or so since its nominal heyday, when it carried the name of Zocalo.

Then there's the child, son of a moonlighting rigging technician, a tyke named Tyler, mercilessly and ceaselessly reprimanded for failing to stay out of the dangerous work area, and equally ceaseless in his own failure to absorb the concept. At one point, having finally gotten out of the way for a few minutes, he emerges from one of TemplO's multiple tin enclosures carrying an armful of small colored orbs that must surely look, through his eyes, to be playthings. He's bouncing them off a patch of cracked pavement, happily preoccupied at last, when Topchy notices: "Hey, Tyler? That's my art…"

And finally there's the balloon. As Topchy and Tyler's dad, 50 feet up, employ a two-by-ten and a car jack in an attempt to pop the tower's minaretish pinnacle loose of its mooring, the balloon wafts by, poised, from a certain vantage, to pop itself on the uppermost needlelike extremity, before slowly disappearing into the distance, over Buffalo Bayou and toward the downtown skyline. It is the balloon's shape that's suggestive, a perfect sphere, mirroring the "O" of TemplO, which is itself just a typographical approximation of Topchy's operative idea of "the pregnant void," an empty space, like these two acres on Feagan Street, whence, from nothing, possibility is birthed.

The balloon is easy enough to read as a quiet wave farewell from the consistently gravid void of the universe at large, because the TemplO tower is coming down, as soon will many of the structures that Topchy has erected on this rented property over the past 13 years. His landlord is selling TemplO out from under him, and Topchy has to make way for whatever its new ownership may care to do with the acreage, which, to judge by the view from 60 feet up in the airy tower grid, probably has something to do with more town homes for hip people to complain about.

Or, like much of the art/performance/ life that has occurred at Zocalo/ TemplO over the years, it could just be a balloon. Depends on how you look at things.

There's little point in attempting a historically complete and accurate chronicle of Zocalo/TemplO, for the same reason that Nestor Topchy can be seen, even from 50 feet below, grinning behind his safety goggles as he pries loose one after another of the corrugated tin sheets that skirt the tower's four platforms like the brim of the Vietnamese straw hat on his head, kicking the panels out into thin air and watching them whistle and clang to the ground. TemplO was never about permanence, and in fact the tower, started in 1996 and completed only last year, hardly had time to qualify as a permanent structure before its deconstruction changes the landscape's form yet again.

"There's a lesson there," Topchy says, not at all unhappily. "If you're going to build something, be prepared to take it down." Another sheet shimmies down a steel guy wire and skims off the roof of TemplO's communal kitchen, smacking the pavement. "It sure makes a gratifying noise."

But in outline, the acreage that came to be TemplO entered Topchy's purview in 1988. Topchy had then been in Houston a couple of years, transplanted from Baltimore, and by most accounts an arrogant blusterer of an ambitious young sculptor who blew into the University of Houston to show the locals how it was done. Houston, which at that time housed no shortage of artistic bluster, proved a fertile launching ground. Artists Wes Hicks and Kevin Cunningham had recently spun themselves off of the University of Houston's now-legendary Lawndale Annex scene in the wake of an administrative crackdown, and founded Commerce Street Artists Warehouse on the northeastern edge of downtown. Topchy moved in a few months later, and his energy and bravura quickly attracted a coterie of cohorts, one of whom was fellow artist Rick Lowe.

Lowe says that "Nestor in those days had kind of an entourage of people. You could roll with Nestor in the entourage. And I guess at that time I was kind of a sidekick in a sense. I didn't have a car. Nestor had a car. So he could drive, and I have a very good sense of direction, so I could navigate."

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