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Bringing Down the House

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."

It was on one of those driving trips, Lowe remembers, that the pair first noticed the property at 5223 Feagan.

Topchy was experiencing personality conflicts -- "constant battle" is Lowe's assessment -- with some of Commerce Street's other residents, "and one day we just went on a ride, looking around, checking stuff out," Lowe says. "We might have actually been Dumpster-diving at the time, and we saw that place and called around."

What they saw was a derelict group of tin buildings and warehouses behind a chain-link fence, once a freight truck depot, a chop shop at the time, backed up to a small pasture with a tin barn, which grouping turned out to be among the holdings of then-district attorney Johnny B. Holmes Jr., who told the pair, Topchy remembers, that he'd be "tickled to see someone do something with the place."

"It really kind of made sense at the time," Lowe says, "because that front area where Zocalo/TemplO is kind of has this big outdoor sculpture yard feel that Nestor was interested in, then on the back side of it was about a 5,000-square-foot barn, and since I was doing more painting, installation-type stuff, that fit me."

Topchy and Lowe recruited artist Dean Ruck, then a Core Fellow at the Glassell School of Art, and painter Jim Pirtle, and the four began splitting the property's monthly rent, which in those bust years was an artist-friendly $400. An electrician buddy "whose name should probably not be mentioned" bootlegged electricity from the main compound to the barn when HL&P wanted a prohibitive sum to run a line.

At that point, the fledgling collective had no name, but the engine that would drive both Zocalo and TemplO, for better and worse, was purring, and the engine was Topchy. His entourage followed him to Feagan Street, and soon enough the grinding dullness of actually practicing art was supplemented with open-house Sunday brunches and a crowd of spectators and hangers-on attracted by Topchy's and Pirtle's developing focus on performance-oriented art.

Perhaps Topchy's best-remembered shticks were as the frown-painted Spunky the Anti-Clown and mock rapper MC Poodle. Pirtle chugged picante sauce and smeared mayonnaise on his face. Topchy's space hosted plays and live poetry and short films and all manner of indecipherable events, and there were of course parties, remembered as legendary by those who were there, and these were many, over the years.

"What was interesting about the TemplO thing coming up," Lowe says, referring to its earliest days, "was that one of the proposed reasons, from Nestor's angle, as to why he wanted to get out of Commerce Street was that there was too much social activity going on, and not enough, you know, serious work."

Some serious work was doubtless done at TemplO, by Topchy, Pirtle, Lowe, Ruck and by later-comers including video artist Andy Mann, who died earlier this year, and another Glassell Core Fellow from that time, Giles Lyon, now in New York City. Serious work was doubtless done by others as well. But Feagan Street was transforming under Topchy's direction. And like most communal endeavors, it began a slow splintering under its own weight. Perhaps the first crack appeared early, when Ruck, described by Lowe as "a solitary kind of guy," began awakening of Sunday mornings to find brunch in full swing in his living space, which happened to contain the necessary bathroom and kitchen.

The pregnant void began to breed resentments and divergences. One by one, the first wave, save Topchy, moved on. Pirtle left, and later founded No tsu oH in an abandoned building on Main Street. Ruck left and bought a house in Houston. Lowe launched Project Row Houses in the Fifth Ward in 1993 but stayed on at Feagan until '97, by which point Topchy was renting out any number of habitats on the grounds -- trailers, school buses, makeshift apartments, packing crates -- to a clientele of increasingly questionable seriousness, and Lowe's memory of a "sane state" in the compound had well faded.

"So then it just got crazy, there were all kind of people over there….It just kind of opened up….I mean, most of the people during that time, I didn't even care to meet most of them. Because my life was changing. I was doing different stuff. I guess that's what's supposed to happen."  

As Feagan Street's original possibilities departed, fresh ones arrived to take their places, with Topchy anchoring the transition. In 1994 the Zocalo Theater and Performance Art Company became an official nonprofit arts organization, and for several years after, Zocalo -- the name taken from Mexico City's communitarian town square bazaar -- thrived, a worthy successor to such short-lived spontaneous communities as Lawndale, Commerce Street, Lexington Street and Catal Hüyük.

And then inevitably, as Zocalo grew and haltingly formalized, yet more factions emerged from the void. Lowe was on the periphery of the conflict, but he describes as well as anyone the mechanics of organizational disintegration.

"It started to get bigger, there were more people involved, and I think this was part of that letting-go thing. And when I say, 'let go,' it's like allowing other people to share in your responsibility and your vision of doing what you do. And I think that the people around Zocalo at the time were requesting that they be a part of that vision, and there was a struggle, and I think Nestor's response was, well, you can take Zocalo, and I'll do something else."

The word "Zocalo" turned out to be worth not much without Topchy and his lease -- it's now best known (sort of sadly, if you think about it) as the name of a funky-chic shop in the Heights -- and so Topchy unorganized his fiefdom into TemplO, with its explicit and implicit emphasis on the O, which is the void, pregnant as ever with possibility, devoid of definitions and easily mistaken for a zero, or a shell.

Feagan Street's pace slowed, its public profile began sinking, and Topchy began welding a tower of scrap plumbing pipe, electrical conduit, rebar, tin, steel grate and wire capped with a spiked lightning rod. From the top, at the same height as the canopy of the tallest surrounding trees, the view to the south is briefly rural almost to Memorial Drive, tree-cluttered pasture, what could almost pass for wilderness so close to downtown. The northern exposure reveals the West End's march toward the bayou, a sea of town homes and ubiquitous modern tin-sheathed condos that look nothing like the industrial sources they try so hard to suggest, nothing like the ramshackle and rust that dominates TemplO.

"Before and after," Topchy says, standing on top, safety-harnessed to one of his own welds, pointing north and south, respectively, taking the long view.

Cameron Armstrong is an architect best known for designing the custom metal houses that litter the West End. He has known Topchy for years, is documenting the dismantling of TemplO with a digital camera, and worked with him in 2000 curating a show called "Site/Work/S" in Houston during the International Sculpture Conference, which show was accompanied by a tour, undertaken in Topchy's art bus, of a dozen or so local examples, including The Artery, El Dorado Ballroom, No tsu oH, the Orange Show, Project Row Houses and TemplO.

"Houston is a place in which the traditional kind of urban form, urban planning, just doesn't apply," Armstrong figures. "It's chaotic here, for one thing, just generally chaotic. And one of the things that we don't have, as a result, is a monumental landscape. We don't have a network of civic monuments that help give the city definition, form, and a sort of meaning and memory."

What we have instead is a "relentlessly retail" landscape that fails to satisfy these needs.

The exception to this lack is what Armstrong calls Site Work, which is defined, loosely of course, as existing at the intersection of performance art, folk art, site-specific installation and architecture.

"What we've seen is artists….I think of it as burrowing into an existing background and colonizing it in a way, and creating there an arena in each of these cases, in which the people in the community -- whatever kind of community, however it might define itself -- can have a kind of experience of performing community, or performing some element of social life. And those performances are ways for people in the city to touch base with themselves."

Alison de Lima Greene, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, which owns a bit of Topchy's earlier work, describes TemplO as Gesampkunstwerk, a total work of art. "I think finally what he did at Zocalo sort of had to be, if you will, a sort of complete work in itself….I think what Nestor and his friends created there was extraordinary."

Curator Walter Hopps lives a few minutes away from TemplO, in "the original corrugated sheet steel building that John DeMenil had built." He says, "Think of the great Bauhaus, the great collective art school in Germany, a great center of design and so on. What Nestor and his compatriots put together in that sort of collective there -- they did performance and theater and all sorts of things at the Bauhaus -- but it's a kind of anti-Bauhaus. Somehow it's in an era of different kinds of cultural phenomena, sort of standing outside the norm….We think of artists making precious objects or refined objects that end up getting sold to collectors and so on, and Nestor has been, without thinking of himself really as a renegade, outside of all that, or apart from it….He's one of the really interesting artists in Houston….It's amazing what they've made out of practically nothing."  

Kathleen James owns James Gallery in the West End, considers herself an old friend, and visited TemplO recently, at Topchy's invitation. A studio visit, if you will.

"He's created a safe haven and a real hybrid situation for creativity, and he's also facilitated a place where an audience could interact with him. Which sort of sidesteps the need for an art dealer in certain regards."

That fact, couched as a compliment, could just as easily be viewed as a drawback. Topchy can lay claim, as Lowe and others suggest, to being an "outsider" artist who has created a "total environment," but what's left, professionally speaking, when that environment is no more?

"That's really tough," says James, "because I'm sure to some small extent that might be why he asked me over there recently."

Topchy needs to be out of TemplO within a month or two, and there's a lot of art to find homes for, and unself-conscious renegade or not, the apparent circumstance that no one especially seems to want it has got to chafe. Even the scrap, the raw material he has put to such varied use and the lying-around leftovers -- Rick Lowe salvaged a bit, but otherwise no one has expressed interest. Topchy mentions twice that Greene hasn't returned his calls. As he tosses tin off the tower, beneath which hang dozens of the dusty orbs that are his signature, he says he might just post the scrap for sale on eBay, with pictures of the art from which it was ripped. That might be art too, depending on how you look at it.

If Topchy harbors sadness, disappointment or regret over the imminent disappearance of TemplO, he does not express it. The pregnant void is the thing, and neither Zocalo nor TemplO was ever fixed in a static, finished state. Nor was it meant to be. He does not so much bemoan the ugly encroachment of high-density cookie-cutter town homes as he accepts it as one more possibility enacted by the void.

No one is trying to save TemplO as a physical address. There is no movement to purchase the land or preserve it as a permanent monument. And there shouldn't be. As a monument, TemplO is ill-suited to memorialize stasis.

"If you really want to look at Nestor's major work," says Lowe, "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 shit, building shit. 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. It was just a growing sculpture. Constantly growing. 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."

TemplO today feels about half like a ghost town. Some artist residents remain, the "loyal" ones continuing to pay rent in the face of eviction, Topchy says, the "not so loyal ones" skating the opportunity to skip.

Objects that may or may not be sculpture litter that yard. The converted packing crate "Om House" is up on blocks, axles newly attached, waiting for wheels to roll it away. Trailers and buses and buildings carry spray-painted reminders: "Move after March 15, before March 25." A complicated rebar proscenium hovers over the outdoor stage like a skeleton. Makeshift ponds and pools sprout lilies and collect leaves. A walk through the more-or-less gallery space beneath the tower reveals years' worth of Topchy's dangling spheres, some as small as beach balls, others as large as Volkswagens, and various wall-mounted pieces, almost all in the shapes of circles and arches and half-moons, their fiberglass composite shells collaged and patterned and showing the accumulated grime of years of indoor/outdoor storage. Relics are scattered like utensils from the dismantled kitchen: a faded poem, Ode to TemplO, written by former TemplO "executive director" Richard Olson in 1998, taped to cardboard and leaning against a wall; a sloppily framed black T-shirt commemorating the "Texas Free Dumb Tour," a bus-bound performance art road trip up the East Coast in the summer of 1993. Old rolls of fax paper mingled with used masonry wheels and rolls of plastic sheeting.  

Topchy has never acknowledged much difference between industrial decay and art, and so maybe it's only right that TemplO should return once more, however briefly, to the refuse of which it was born.

Topchy, in the meantime, is moving on. He and Mariana, his wife of four years, recently purchased a three-quarter-acre lot with a white frame cottage just north of the Heights, and he's restoring it. It will be a better place to raise their three-year-old daughter, Minerva. All that land is a new void, already gurgling with possibility.

"It won't be TemplO anymore," he says. "I'm going to call the new company 'O.' Just 'O.' " This is not, as it might seem, reductive. What, Topchy asks, could be more encompassing?

"The uniqueness," says friend James, "and probably the driving energy, is Nestor, and I'm hoping that it will remanifest."

No one who knows Topchy doubts that it will, but there's still a hovering sense of regret over the loss, and even that sense of loss ties TemplO to the landscape that made it possible, to Houston, and to this town's own risings and fallings.

The economic bust that allowed starving artists to corral two acres for 13 years was also tied to time and circumstance, and Alison de Lima Greene thinks that that, as much as anything, "led to an incredible flourishing of a kind of alternate art world, if you will … that was really special to Houston at that moment."

That moment is gone, as Hopps, living in the neighborhood, well knows.

"What's happening to the West End here is very sad. They're driving artists out, because the land values go up and it's all being gentrified….I'm looking at big pretentious town houses and so on right out the window now, damned three-story things."

Topchy's looking at it too, from 60 feet in the air, the tower top now loosed, preparing to lower it with ropes and pulleys to the ground.

"Taking the head off," he says. "That seems like a terrible thing to do to a temple."

As the crew begins to lower the minaret, Mariana emerges from what has been the couple's living space for the past four years and aims a video camera at the descending sculpture.

Yes, she says, she will miss this place.

"Mostly because it never really reached its potential. Nestor put a lot of work into it. It didn't really get its just reward."

Unless, of course, the work was its own reward. Which, as far as Topchy will admit, it surely was.

Just depends on how you look at it.


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