Watts Towers, located in South Central Los Angeles, near to Compton and the site of the Watts riots of 1965, is a beautiful, poetic, awe-inspiring art work. It took a tiny Italian immigrant (I know he’s tiny because there’s a life-sized photograph of him in the arts centre attached to the site) called Simon (Sam) Rodia 33 years to build the collection of 17 interconnected structures. Having been sent by his parents to America at the tender age of 15 to avoid conscription, Rodia was gripped briefly by alcoholism and then, when he settled in Watts, by a vision to build something which, when you stand in front of it – or rather at the helm, since it resembles a ship – points back to Europe and echoes his memories of Italy.
His structure was borne of an obsession to make “something big”. But it’s the tiny details that are the most moving: the impression of his and his wife’s shoes in cement to represent their love; the faucet handles used to make flowers; the tiny cup fragments; even the ancient shards of blue Milk of Magnesia bottles. A photograph could never do them justice. What might be seen as a random, crazy, upward build actually has its own narrative structure: it alludes to Roman ruins, to the festivals celebrating St. Paulinus in Nola, Italy, where Rodia grew up, even to the architecture of Gaudí. On entering the arts centre attached to Watts Towers, I signed a petition to prevent its closure. Threats of destruction have peppered the history of this outstanding life’s work, described by Jacob Bronowski in his seminal BBC television series The Ascent of Man as “my favourite monument”. Standing in front of it, amongst it, under it, I experienced one of the most powerful responses I’ve had to an art object.
Police were shooting people. My mother would say, ‘Where are you going?’ I’d say, ‘To play on the towers’
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a neglected, troubled neighbourhood. In 1921, when Rodia moved to Watts, it was populated by German, French, Asian, Latino, African-American immigrants and was, and clearly still is, a very depressed area. My amazement at the fact that Rodia was left, unhindered, to build such an enormous landmark was met by a smile from James Janisse, my guide, who grew up in Watts. “The last place you would pay attention to as a cop or a politician was the outskirts of town,” he told me. “They didn’t care about it.” Little has changed. On arrival at Watts, I had nervously circled the site looking for a way in and ended up parking on the street. I asked a member of staff why there wasn’t proper signposting. “We apply every month,” I was told, “but no-one really bothers about us out here.” If there’s a single positive aspect to this history of neglect, it’s that Sam Rodia was left alone to build his masterpiece.
From the stories you hear about Rodia, it seems he was the archetypal neighbourhood nice guy. “I have a friend who was a very small child at the time,” says James. “Sam would give all the children a penny and a hammer and they’d sit there and break up plates, cups and saucers, the way children love to do.” The local priest performed baptisms in the font he fashioned and his Latino neighbours deferred to him as “Don Simon”.
Watts Towers was built between two world wars and during a Great Depression by a construction worker whose day job was physically demanding, but who was committed enough to spend every evening and weekend on the project. As a physical feat alone, it’s incredible – comparable, with no flippancy, to Michelangelo’s four backbreaking years at the Sistine Chapel. Rodia mixed cement and broke iron and mosaic pieces by hand. He chose the site after much deliberation because the nearby railroad track meant that people would pass by en-masse every 15 minutes and see his work. He placed iron strips beneath those same tracks to bend them, before working them into the base of his structure.
His effect on the local community has been incredibly positive. There is a Simon Rodia High School, which represents peace in this most troubled of areas – the building’s several hearts point skywards while the multi-coloured tiles (many from the famous Malibu Potteries where he worked) and pottery represent a history of California ceramics. And James Janisse recalls the period following the Watts riots when his mother wouldn’t let him go out and play anywhere else: “It was crazy,” he says. “Police were shooting people. My mother would say, ‘Where are you going?’ I’d say, ‘To play on the towers,’ and she’d go, ‘Okay.’ They were the only place we could go because of the madness that was going on.”
In 1954, while still working on the construction of the towers, Sam Rodia suffered a serious fall and was paralysed. He was finished. He vowed that if he ever walked again, he would go to live with his sister in Martinez – which is exactly what he did. He handed over the keys to a neighbour, walked away and never returned. In 1965 he died of a heart attack. The city would have pulled down Watts Towers had an actor and a movie producer – Nicholas King and William Cartwright – not stepped in, bought the land (for $3,000, in 1959) and motivated the community into making the site a centre for the arts. It is a tribute to Rodia’s skills in construction that when cranes and pulleys were used to simulate the effects of an earthquake to test the safety of the structure, it was the cranes that failed and fell.
I can’t recommend a trip to Watts Towers enough. Go and walk amongst the mosaics of 7UP, Canada Dry, and Welch’s soda bottles. Look up at the sky through the massive hooped skirts of concrete and steel masts. Walk over heart-patterned floors. Watts Towers is a Fitzcarraldo-scale fantasy that transports its visitor onto an incredible, romantic ship, built by a tiny madman (I use the word with the greatest respect, the best people are madmen), floating in the direction of the sun.
Pippa Brooks travelled with Air New Zealand from London to Los Angeles: airnewzealand.co.uk