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Towers of Power

Simon Rodia's masterwork is inseparable from its site on a dead-end street in Watts. Which is another good reason to stop ignoring it.

October 23, 2005|Sara Catania | Sara Catania last wrote for the magazine on L.A.'s mayoral blues.

Watts towers did not begin with a tower at all. It began with a ship, or an utterly immobile rendition of one. Three thousand miles from the ocean that carried him to the United States from Italy 26 years before, Simon Rodia dug a boat-shaped trench at the narrow tip of his triangular lot, filled it with concrete and anchored into it scavenged lengths of steel. He constructed a knee-high, green-tinted concrete deck, which he decorated with salvaged tiles in sky blues, ocean greens, and sunset yellows, oranges and pinks. He wrapped the exposed steel rods in chicken wire and coated them with cement mortar. He embellished the tallest one--the foremast--with a series of delicate openwork ovoids. The aft mast became a succession of bowl shapes covered with white seashells.

With that, Rodia embarked on a 34-year voyage of sculptural whimsy around his tenth-of-an-acre backyard. Those who study the Watts Towers say he had no formal plan. Yet in that first sculpture--later christened the Ship of Marco Polo--lies the template for the entire work: the spires, the tiles, the juxtaposition of concrete with capriccio. Indeed, some students of the towers say Rodia conceived of the site itself as a seafaring vessel, setting what looks like a captain's wheel into the base of the eastern tower, just behind the Ship of Marco Polo.

Rodia's tools were crude: a pipe-fitter's wrench, a chisel, a mixing pail. He worked without machine tools or drills, without scaffolding or bolts. It was an obsession that consumed him through six presidents, two earthquakes and a world war, until he had single-handedly constructed, in addition to the ship, three tall towers, a gazebo, a fountain, a fish pond, two enclosure walls and various other things--17 sculptures in all. The tallest tower rises more than 10 stories above the flat Central Los Angeles landscape. The entire agglomeration, considered as a single work, is said to be the largest structure ever made by one man alone--a vertical triumph in a horizontal town.

In 1955, Rodia handed the deed to the property to a neighbor and walked away. He left it to us to figure out what to do with what he had made. Fifty years later, we're still scratching our heads.

By training Rodia was neither artist nor architect--he was a cement finisher and tile maker who could barely read. But he is admired among artists for his superlative grasp of color, among architects for his deft reliance on curved forms, and among engineers for his creative manipulation of concrete, applying homemade batches of it in a "thin shell" style that was rare at the time but is widely used today in building construction. Rodia's real genius, though, was in transforming the mundane and familiar, the mass-produced and commonplace, into something unlike anything else, something singular and surprising and strange. "Go anywhere in the world and look for a structure that's built like the Watts Towers," says Bud Goldstone, a structural engineer who tended to the towers under various city contracts for two decades. "There is absolutely nothing like it. It is unique."

Over the years the towers have been alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) puzzled over, celebrated, vandalized, admired and nearly demolished. Now they are mostly left alone, looked after by a caring few and overlooked, ignored or forgotten by the rest. Watts Towers is one of just six national historic landmarks in Los Angeles (San Francisco has 18, New York City 85). Yet from June 2004 to June 2005, only 6,500 people showed up for tours, compared with 30,000 at Pasadena's Gamble House and 690,000 at Hearst Castle. "L.A. has a very twisted view of the arts," says Edward Landler, who with Rodia's grand-nephew Brad Byer recently completed "I Build the Tower," a documentary film project 20 years in the making. "You've got to be accomplished. You've got to be 'special' to be taken seriously. Here is this man, this uneducated man, this dirty man who you wouldn't pay attention to on the street, who created this thing that can touch us in this way. He didn't care to show himself off, but he wanted to be remembered. He had no notion of this as art--he just wanted to build something."

Why aren't we invested in this phenomenal achievement? Why don't we honor Rodia's vision and perseverance, this classic tale of a poor immigrant making his way to the promised land, creating something from nothing, then moving on? In this most transient of towns, why aren't the towers featured on the Los Angeles city seal? "The reason why they don't try to make a cultural icon out of it is because of the people who live in Watts," says Cecil Fergerson, who rose from a childhood in Watts to become a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and whose face is featured in a mural at the Watts Towers Community Arts Center. "It's a community of poverty," Fergerson says. "Always was. When they take care of that problem, the towers will be bigger than the Statue of Liberty."

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