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July 02, 2003

Reflecting on the beleaguered history of the Watts Towers, it's tempting to say this contemporary masterwork, begun in 1921 and finished in 1955, was jinxed from inception.

Simon Rodia, an unschooled Italian immigrant, was an original artist determined to leave a legacy to his adopted city. He created a "remarkable, original icon of modern sculpture," as Stephanie Barron, chief curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, describes it. But he did so using unconventional methods and materials, and the weather hasn't helped. His towers now suffer from what engineers call an "inherent, built-in instability," and it's unclear who will take on the long, difficult, demanding and largely undone chore of caring for Rodia's art.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district contains the towers, must lead a renewed effort to develop -- once and for all -- a comprehensive management plan that goes beyond patching and repairing the irreplaceable monument, which suffers more damage every time it rains. Two years ago, the inspiring Los Angeles sculpture went through a $1.9-million seismic repair; 44 years ago, the towers withstood a 10,000-pound stress test to prove their strength and avert demolition. Between, there's been nothing but a tale of resilience in adversity. The controversy is once again over the towers' safety and care. Earlier this year, activists complained that Los Angeles officials were letting the monument fall apart. The city's Cultural Affairs Department calls the claim overblown and argues that the towers pose no safety risk, although conceding that their upper reaches have not been examined for years.

To settle the conflict, and to evaluate the site's safety issues, the state Department of Parks and Recreation hired two outside experts. Their report is due in August. Meanwhile, Timothy Whalen -- director of the famed Getty Conservation Institute, who has said "the towers are in active deterioration" -- also has offered the institute's advice in developing a management plan.

Officials should get the Getty on board immediately. By taking advantage of its world-class preservation expertise and with Hahn's leadership, this could be the defining moment to get beyond stopgap measures for the towers, like planning for inspection, safety and repairs.

Officials and Rodia enthusiasts must adopt a long view, find steady funding and figure how best to run the site -- frugally and efficiently -- and protect the priceless towers for a long, long time.

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