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Monday, June 25, 2012

Simon Rodia

The hands of the man
It would be hard to imagine a less likely address for a great work of art--1727 E. 107th St., Los Angeles, California 90002.  For those unfamiliar with the landscape, that's smack in the middle of east, LA in the area known as Watts.  Perhaps worst remembered for a series of riots in the late 1960s, this sunny, Southern California version of an Eastern ghetto would rather be known as the home of  on of the most unique architectural/sculptural constructions ever made--Simon Rodia's Watts Towers.

Simon Rodia
The Watts Towers plot plan

If the address is unlikely, the artist was equally so.  Simon Rodia was born in 1879 in Italy.  He came to this country around the turn of the century and found work as a construction laborer.  Eventually he ended up in California as a tile setter.  He bought a piece of property on what was then the outskirts of town and built himself a simple frame home.  Starting in 1921, in a desire to leave something of himself, and something important for posterity in his adopted country, Simon Rodia began building all around his home, what he called his "Nuestro Pueblo" on his modest, triangular piece of land situated on a dead end street.

A doorway to a land of fantasy and wonder.
He had no formal training as an architect, builder, engineer, or artist. He was a craftsman who learned as he built, employing bent steel rods, concrete he mixed himself, embedded with bits of colored glass, stones, seashells, and all manner of broken crockery. One would almost have to say he "invented" recycling, at least insofar as sculptural constructions are concerned. His work has often been compared to that of Antonio Gaudi, the Spanish architect from Barcelona. As time passed, in his spare time, after work and on weekends, he built and built, no plans, no final vision, no assistants, no governmental grants. One step at a time his towers rose, rings constructed around them served as scaffolding. He built a similar wall around his property, no doubt to discourage vandalism; and simply continued, day after day, year after year, for thirty-three years!

Watts Towers mosaic detail.
Among the towers, one of which eventually climbed to just under 100 feet in height, he constructed fountains, birdbaths, decorated posts, and oddments, using household colors, green 7-Up bottles, blue Milk of Magnesia bottles, tiny pebbles, seashells, and colored rocks. In fact, he may have used some of the same rocks that were often thrown at him by irate neighbors. The work of art is often compared to the improvisational nature of Jazz, also finding it's way during this time. Today, Watts Towers is, in fact, the home of the Watts Towers Jazz Festival, as well as the Watts Towers Arts Center (below). In 1954, at the age of 79, perhaps deciding it was finished, he handed over the keys to a neighbor and simply disappeared. In 1957, his house was destroyed by fire.

The Watts Towers Art Center
Years passed, and in 1975, the city of Los Angeles declared the whole thing a hazardous structure and tried to have it demolished. This time, instead of throwing rocks and hurling epithets, the Watts community organized to save Rodia's fantasy masterpiece. They called in a structural engineer who countered the claims of the city by certifying the whole fantastic amalgamation structurally sound. That same year, it was declared the national historic landmark it is today. And what ever happened to Simon Rodia? Shortly before his death in 1965, a reporter found him living near San Francisco. Asked why he left the towers, Rodia replied (perhaps not unsurprisingly), "I don't want to have anything more to do with them."
Simon Rodia lives on, continuing to soar majestically over the ghetto neighborhood he called home.

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