“I had in mind to do something big and I did it.” – Simon Rodia

detail of Watts Towers

As a child growing up in Los Angeles my life was predictable and mundane. My neighborhood was a grid of suburban streets composed of identical box-like houses. But one Sunday my sense of what was possible changed. On this Sunday we took a drive out to Watts, a part of the city totally unlike my suburban world.

We drove through a forgotten neighborhood of small rundown houses in an area of Los Angeles scarred by the riots of the 1960s. Ahead of us we could see a group of tall spindly towers rising from a residential lot. As we drew closer we could see that the interwoven lines of the structures were covered in a dense pattern of broken crockery, shells and glass. We had arrived at Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers.

mosaic surface made with tile, glass and shells

Simon Rodia was an Italian immigrant and laborer who worked by himself for over thirty years constructing the towers. From 1921 until 1954, when he gave his life’s work to a neighbor, he could be found collecting scrap materials or climbing up the growing metal ribs of his project. He was known to wander for miles along railroad tracks near his home, picking up the used metal rebar that forms the towers. Neighbors recall seeing him with his bucket, filling it with broken soda bottles and pottery as he walked home from work. Children from the area would bring him found bits of glass and ceramics to add to the sculptures.

The 17 towers of the Watts Towers.Rodia used no special equipment, working just with the simplest of tools. He let the work unfold without prior planning. He was not trying to make art. He didn’t study design. And yet, somehow, he had this unique need and vision, which when combined with his innate sense of the elements and principles of design, created a masterpiece that is now a National Historic Landmark.

Sculpture? Architecture? Folk Art? The labels seem unimportant. Rodia called his towers “Nuestro Pueblo,” “Our Town” in Spanish, and over the years they have become a symbol of hope and community.

For more information about Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers visit http://www.wattstowers.org

You can find photographs here http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Watts_Towers.html

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