Tuesday, 27 July 2010
I was reminded of the Watts Towers after googling the Bloods and the Crips. We were told not to go to Venice Beach at night by our walking corpse of a hotel receptionist, Gigi, because, so she said, the gangs hang out there. This later turned out to be total bullcrap but now at least I know all about hand signs, gang colours and careful use of words beginning with B and C. Anyway, her saying that led me to the Watts Towers so all is forgiven, Gigi.
The towers are the work of one man, Sam Rodia, an Italian immigrant who in 1921 bought a plot in Watts because it was cheap. A tile-setter by day, he lived alone after a troubled spell of being a miner and seeing his brother killed down the mines. He briefly turned to drink and left his family, seeking solace in following his creative impulse, creating steel and cement mosaiced towers and structures in his back yard. He spent every waking moment outside of his day job sourcing materials for his work and building, alone. For thirty years.
On his plot he built a small bungalow, where he lived, and the towers. This is how they look from the street.
Inspired by great men such as Galileo and Columbus, he built a ship structure, positioned in the far corner of his plot, facing towards Italy.
There is a wedding tower, which he constructed to perform wedding ceremonies, a tiered wedding cake structure and a baptismal font. This is the inside view of the wedding tower.
And these are the steps up to it. He designed the towers with two doorways, for the couple to enter separately, and one doorway for the couple to exit, in union. God, I love Italians and their romantic ways.
Hearts are a common motif throughout, appearing on tile, wired into the structures and stamped into the cement. His portrait was later included on the cover artwork for Sergeant Pepper. With his solitary life and the hearts he scattered all over the towers, I definitely see him as an honorary member of the Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club.
Rodia signed his work of thirty years by stamping it with the simple tools he used to create it, seen here on the outward facing boundary wall.
This film is the only known footage Rodia. I especially love seeing the simple interior of his bungalow, of which only the fireplace still remains. After years of facing abuse from his neighbours, who didn’t understand the strange wire structures he was building in their neighbourhood, he signed the lease of the property over to a neighbour and left, retiring to California. A few years later, in the mid 1950s, stray firecrackers burned his bungalow to the ground. Only intervention from local arts preservationists saved the towers from being destroyed and not before the city tried to crane them out of the ground, on the grounds that they were unsafe. But they survived.
Here’s the lonesome remaining fireplace.
As Rodia said, ‘I had in mind to do something big and I did it.’ To me, these structures represent America; the pioneering spirit, what can be achieved at the hands of one man. It seems bizarre that they are not better championed.
The towers and the attached Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center are under immediate threat of having their public funding pulled: the towers are protected – although it’s sad that they are separated from the street by iron railings – but they are in a careworn state. Please sign this online petition to show your support.
Situated in Watts, a high-crime neighbourhood, the towers are only a few minutes drive from the freeway so I would urge you to definitely go if you are deciding whether or not to make the trip. Just remove any tiaras, Rolex watches, etc. And keep your car doors locked! For tour information call in advance to check days and times on (213) 847-4646.