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News and Projects

The Watts Towers and Simon Rodia

Friday, 17th February 2012

In 1921 Simon Rodia, an Italian-born man living and working in California, USA, began the contruction of an intricate, dazzling, imaginative structure in his back garden, know known as the 'Watts Towers'.

The structure is made from 'steel pipes and rods, wrapped with wire mesh and coated with mortar. The main supports are embedded with pieces of porcelain, tile, and glass,'(wiki) and other disgarded items. It contains seventeen structures which all interconnect. The two tallest towers of the structure are 30 metres (99 feet) in height!

The unique project took 33 years to complete. Upon completion Rodia handed the title deeds of his house (and the towers) to his neighbour and left.

'The property changed hands, Rodia's bungalow inside the enclosure was burned down, and the city of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it razed. Actor Nicholas King and a film editor William Cartwright visited the site in 1959, saw the neglect, and purchased the property for $3,000 in order to preserve it. When the city found out about the transfer, it decided to perform the demolition before the transfer went through. The towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world. King, Cartwright, and museum curator Jim Elliott of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along with area architects, artists, and community activists formed the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. The Committee negotiated with the city to allow for an engineering test to establish the safety of the structures.

The test took place on October 10, 1959.[5] For the test, steel cable was attached to each tower and a crane was used to exert lateral force. The crane was unable to topple or even shift the towers with the forces applied, and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure. Bud Goldstone and Edward Farrell were the engineer and architect leading the team.

The committee preserved the towers independently until 1975, when it deeded the site to the City of Los Angeles, which in turn deeded it to the State of California in 1978. It is now designated the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park. It is operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In February 2011, LACMA announced that it had received a $500,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to conserve and promote the Watts Towers.' (wiki)

Here is a 1957 documentary about the towers. The sound quality is a little warped.

Jacob Bronowski (wonderful person!) includes the towers in an episode of 'The Ascent of Man'. In the video below, it is at 7'20'' in. Although, all of the video is of interest.

So naturally, the question arrises - why? Why did this man spend 33 years of his life constructing a functionless contruction from waste materials? There was no financial element to the project - as mentioned above he gave them away with his house!

I suppose he just wanted to. What other reason is needed? I write because I love WRITING. From what I can glean, Rodia built because he loved building. What better reason can there be? As Jacob Bronowski puts it when speaking in The Ascent of Man about 'man'/us all; 'he loves to do what he does well, and having done it well, he loves to do it better' (Grain In The Stone/Ascent of Man).

Find out more about the Watts Towers and Simon Rodia here.