Do Something Big

Los Angeles’ Watts Towers

Los Angeles’ Watts Towers
Los Angeles’ Watts Towers
28 SEP 2016
by

On a dead-end street in a flat, impoverished district of Southern Los Angeles stands Watts Towers, the most extraordinary and baffling monument in the city. This confounding and unique edifice consists of seventeen pillars molded from concrete, steel rods and chicken wire mesh reaching up to ninety-nine feet (or thirty metres) decorated with fragments of bottles of 7-Up and Canada Dry, ceramic tiles, mirrors and more than twenty-five thousand seashells. This monument was built singlehandedly by the Italian immigrant and construction worker Sabato (or Simon) Rodia over a period of thirty-three years from 1921 to 1954.

Watts Towers may not be as famous as the ‘Hollywood’ sign that sits atop Mount Lee or the gaudy Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, have a surprisingly rich and diverse cultural legacy. Perhaps due to their peculiar, pioneering design, perhaps because Charles Mingus grew up in the area (and was fascinated by them) Southern LA’s bargain-basement Eiffel tower graces the covers of albums by such Jazz artists as Don Cherry, Harold Land Quintet and Willie Bobo. In addition, this cut-price Sagrada Familia has been celebrated by postmodernist writers, lauded as “a jazz cathedral” [1] by Don DeLillo and as a “dream of how things should have been” by Thomas Pynchon [2]. Rodia’s monument is pondered by Jacob Bronowski in his popular documentary series The Ascent of Man (1973), blown up in the 1988 police film Colours and furnishes background scenery for Grant Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). Rodia himself even appears on the top row of the luminaries presented in the album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Yet in spite of the shadow the towers have cast over the imaginations of so many creative individuals, they―and Rodia’s motivation for constructing them―remain obscure.

Watts Towers are a stunning testimony to their creator Rodia’s superhuman tenacity. Rodia built them singlehandedly on evenings and weekends, between work shifts setting tiles and finishing cement, without proper assistance or financial compensation. He scrambled up the cement turrets without scaffolding, buying broken glass and crockery from local children, and deploying the nearby railway track as a vise to bend circles of steel. While Rodia had a background in construction, mostly he learned to build the towers as he went along, frequently changing his plans, often dismantling his construction entirely and starting again―yet the towers notably remained untouched by the race riot of August 1965, which resulted in thirty-four deaths and widespread looting and arson.

If the Towers’ bric-a-brac aesthetic appears quite baffling, Rodia’s reasons for creating them seem even more so. Rodia did not dedicate them to a deity, or dogma, or even to himself, often giving bland and contradictory accounts of his motivations. Perhaps the most cited explanation is his comment that “I had it in my mind to do something big – and I did”. At one time, Rodia claimed they were a shrine: “My wife died and I buried her under the tall tower”. At another time, he described them instead as a product of his civic pride and the urge “[t]o make…pretty scenery…And make the place famous”. At a further moment, he responded to inquiries despondently with the claim that ‘I lost my job’. Interpreters have cast the towers as homage to his Italian homeland or a distraction to prevent him from returning to his previous history of alcoholism. Even stranger, after having dedicated to them the leisure hours of almost half of his life, Rodia declared them completed, halted their construction abruptly, gave them to a neighbor and moved to a small city near San Francisco called Martinez. When warned that his monument was under threat of demolition by the city of Los Angeles on safety grounds, he professed indifference, declaring “I don’t want to have any-more to do with them.”

To my mind, the most convincing account of Rodia’s motivation is provided by Bronowski in The Ascent of Man, who presents the Towers as an exemplification of his claim that “The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skin. He loves to do what he does well”. Rather than fulfilling a clear purpose, Rodia’s bizarre budget basilica expresses his pure pleasure in making. Moreover, as monuments to the glory of labor, the turrets constitute a celebration of the achievements of the early-twentieth century American working class that also constructed the Ford Motor Car, the B-71 Flying Fortress, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lincoln Highway and Route 66. By making something striking and magnificent from detritus, Rodia ennobled the everyday. While the Hollywood sign is an emblem of LA’s glitz and glamour, Watts Tower is a far more potent symbol of the graft and guts that forged the magical city in the desert.

[1] Don Delillo, Underworld: A Novel (London and New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997) p. 277.
[2] Thomas Pynchon, A Journey into the Mind of Watts, New York Times, June 12 1966.