In Houston, there are visionaries, and then there is Nestor Topchy. At least, that’s the impression you get when you hear him talk about the Hive project. Hive is his brainchild, but it’s one that others have eagerly agreed to share.
Hive is an ambitious undertaking, but the concept behind it is surprisingly easy to grasp. Topchy and friends hope to construct a sort of self-contained urban village out of shipping containers. The proposed design, which Topchy worked out with architect Si Dang and others, calls for a square exterior wall comprising shipping containers stacked two deep.
The large space inside the walls (right now Hive is projected to cover 6.5 acres) will be filled green space, including trees and ponds, a few plazas, and the piece de la resistance, the “inner Hive,” a swirling, circular labyrinth made of six layers of stacked containers. The inner Hive containers will be connected by gradually sloping, wheelchair-accessible ramps.
Topchy and friends want Hive to be as self-contained and village-like as possible. So they’re hoping that containers in the outer walls will become home to a wide range of activities, from shopping to car repair to music making, while the inner Hive will be dedicated to quiet activities, such as writing, painting and meditation.
On the other hand, if worse comes to worse, and society does actually collapse, they’ll be able to close the Hive walls, medieval style, and plant a big garden. Survivalists and artists, no place but Texas. (Topchy's timeline calls for the Hive to be completely finished by 2015).
Not his first rodeo
Topchy has created memorable spaces before. He came to Houston from New Jersey in the mid-1980s to study art at the University of Houston. He befriended Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses and Jim Pirtle of notsuoh, and during the 1990s built his own arts complex, the semi-legendary TemplO/Zocalo, on land owned by former D.A. Johnny Holmes. (Topchy's wife, Mariana Lemesoff, owns the performing arts space and bar AvantGarden, for which he has also created some performance spaces.)
The list of artists and performers who appeared early in their careers at TemplO is quite impressive: Tamarie Cooper, the Art Guys, Jason Nodler, Andrea Grover, Kevin Cunningham, Andy Mann and John Axelrod, among others.
Topchy sees Hive as an extension of TemplO, in which an avant-garde arts complex becomes a village, complete with a bank, retirees and anyone else who wants to rent a 1,200-plus-foot space in which to live, work or both. (Or die, for that matter, as Topchy hopes eventually to include a hospice.)
The containers already come with floors made of either teak or oak plywood. They will be spray painted with a ceramic paint, and will be attractive in a rather functional way. Rents are projected to range from $300 to $600. (Topchy sees Hive as a nonprofit endeavor.)
Fantasy or reality?
Hive might sound like an “out-there” idea, but Topchy and company’s planning has already reached the how-much-will-rent-be level of detail. Does this mean Hive will happen?
Well, there is the minor detail of raising the money. But they don’t need a fortune — not a vast one, anyway. Topchy says that with $500,000 they can buy the land and build and lease the outer walls. They are about to begin the fundraising process. A commercial video-maker is working on a public service announcement they intend to put on YouTube.
Topchy and architect Cameron Armstrong have been scouting locations for the village, and currently considering a site in Acres Homes, near the Art Guys' relatively new home. But they’re open to other locations as well, especially if they could find the right parcel inside the Loop.
Who knows if Hive will ever be built? In its expansive vision, it is very Houston — or at least it’s the spiritual descendant of the Houston that seems to have been killed, or at least chloroformed, by the oil bust of the mid-1980s, when our dreams appeared to shrink.
But what if it were? A million or so dollars here might really take the city to another level. Hive could become the icon that Houston currently lacks.
Why is Topchy taking on such a daunting task? First of all, he answers that he’s not willing or able to do it by himself.
“If no one else is interested, I’ll just walk away,” he says. Topchy admits that TemplO taught him the lesson of not putting too much of himself into any one project. “This time I’m taking an Apollonian approach,” Topchy says, then laughs ruefully. “TemplO was very Dionysian.”
But again, why take on such a big dream?
“Hive addresses one of my least favorite things about Houston,” he says. “The lack of community.” He pauses then adds, “But one of my favorite things about Houston is the idea that, if you’re not satisfied with the city, or the neighborhood, you can do something about it.”