Purple Travel

[March 6 2017]

Watts Tower by Simon Rodia, a collection of 17 interconnected sculptural structures made of society’s leftovers, Los Angeles

In the deep undocumented past, sea-shelled-creatures fell into the mud surrounding them, and then, squeezed slowly by natural earthly forces, they rose up as rock strata, those white lines visible in the mountain ranges of many a land. Accretion, order, process, flow. Humankind are much fiercer in shaping the face of their surrounds. It is not the Earth’s infinitesimally slow processes, but the the fast-snapping teeth of insidious social pressures that drive our urban structures to rise and fall. Capital and corruption ensure that our streets are caught in a permanent overhaul of construction and demolition, ribbons cut on one corner at the same time as dynamite blasts on another.

Watts in South Central Los Angeles is a deeply layered locale; with racially restrictive real estate laws denying them access to many other areas, people of many different skin-tones, creeds and tongues, came, lived, died here, some of them placidly, and some of them pressed to breaking point in this immigrant’s pastime paradise which so fast became a trap, a Hell. The suburb lies directly under the LAX flight path; riding the Imperial Highway you ride slip under loops of the pale concrete freeway as cylindrical metal birds cruise above. Evidence of the past/s abound in your side mirror; rusted trucks up on cinderblocks in the dry front yard, the faded picket fences in front of the clapboard houses, the asphalted over street-car lines. But one layer of Watts history bursts out above the grey. The one which rises high into the sky in mosaic-ed curliques, the one that was laid by the hand of Simon Rodia.

Rodia (born Sabato Rodia in 1879) jumped ship to America at 12 years old, worked his way through from the East Coast and to California, and bought this corner of South Los Angeles in 1921. Here, for the next 34 years he laboured to transform the triangle of back yard that fortuitously came attached to number 1765 East 107th Street into a fantastic bastion to personal memory.  We can imagine that his last images of Mother Italy were the glorious spires of the churches of Naples rising behind the port harbour – and that he kept their shapes inside his mind until he had an inch of space and a moment of time to create them again, here in this strange New World with its bright azure sky and endless sun. Using off-cuts and found detritus, glass, tiles, objets trouve, beer bottles still bearing their print, the construction worker by trade twisted wire around steel beams and glued it all together with his own-recipe cement.

The pastel tinted assemblage – which Rodia named  “Nuestra Pueblo” (Our Town) is now lauded as the largest work of art ever known to be made by one man alone. And why can’t a working man have a Folly in his back yard? That this is a Folly made of sweat and blister and ingenuity rather than the decree of a bored aristocrat to add charm to an expansive country garden makes it all the more special. The absolute dedication that it must have taken to create these shapes is almost Religious – in the early centuries of Christianity, Saint Simeon the Stylite’s highest pillar was 20 feet high, but the unbeatified Simon of Watt’s towers “Ship of Marco Polo” has a spire of 38 feet, and the highest tower is 99 feet; Rodia climbed up them each day,  without scaffolding, like a stylite of  old, spending more time in the air than the ground.

After completing his work in 1954, the artist simply left, giving the title to a disinterested neighbour, who did nothing to upkeep the estate; the small front house burned down, and the City of Los Angeles decided to destroy the rest of the site in 1959. But after tests showed the structure sound, it remained, and became acclaimed by architects and artists alike. Rodia didn’t want to be famous for his work, and he never revisited the site, speaking about it publicly only once or twice before he passed away in 1965. Three weeks later, in a steaming Los Angeles August,  the Watts riots – aka, the Watts Rebellion followed. In the fire and fury of decades of racial injustice and economic pressure being released, much of the area was destroyed as clashes between residents and police  – and National Guard militia – roared through the streets. Fragile looking with their pretty glass surfaces, but at their core, made of steel, the Watts Towers  – standing right in the heart of it all – were not harmed. Power to the Dreamer.

Text and photo Hannah Bhuiya

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