Built by Italian immigrant Sabato “Simon” Rodia, the Watts Towers in South Los Angeles are considered by the city to be one of the region’s most important works of art. Rodia moved to Watts in 1920 at a time when the neighborhood was undergoing rapid change. The Pacific Electric Railway constructed the Watts Station on 103rd Street in 1904. Three years later, the County of Los Angeles incorporated Watts and not long after, enterprising developers began to sell subdivided land. Land prices were cheap and Rodia purchased a triangle lot half a mile south of the local Watts Station. In 1921, Rodia began constructing seven steel sculptures in the backyard of his private residence. He named his sculptural oasis Nuestro Pueblo, and over a thirty-four-year period produced three tall spires, a gazebo, fishpond, fountain, and a ship.
Rodia used materials and tools easily available to him, employing ingenuity rather than technical insight to combine a variety of steel elements such as pipes, U-shaped channels, and tee sections. By nestling small pipes into larger ones and fitting them into place by wedging nails into the gaps, Rodia was able to create long continuous rods that he then covered with wire mesh and cement. These steel rods were then pushed into a concrete base that Rodia had carved into the ground, providing stability and support for his Towers, the tallest of which stands at almost thirty meters. Despite having no formal training in architecture or engineering, Rodia built a remarkably resilient set of structures that have endured two significant natural disasters and numerous attempts on the part of the Department of Building and Safety to have them torn down. In 1954, for reasons unknown, Rodia left Watts and the Towers he had dedicated his life to build.
The mid-1950s also marked a second wave of significant change in Watts. As early as 1944, Watts began to draw thousands of African Americans migrating from the South in search of industrial jobs brought on by wartime production. As one of the few neighborhoods in which African Americans were allowed to live, Watts began to house an overwhelmingly large black working class, and ultimately served as the location for the city’s housing projects. The Towers were quickly triangulated by the Imperial Courts (1944), Nickerson Gardens (1954), and Jordan Downs (1955) projects. Unsurprisingly, the Towers drew attention in this period as they were left by Rodia to sit in disrepair.
When the City declared the Towers unsafe and motioned for their removal in 1957 and again in 1959, a group of artists, architects, and engineers campaigned to save the site, effectively forming the Committee for the Preservation of Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts. After generating enough funding to have the Towers professionally evaluated, the committee arranged a widely publicized, 450-kilo load test, which confirmed the structural integrity of the Towers. Their proven durability advanced opportunities to expand Rodia’s corner lot to include an art center that would offer free music, drawing, and painting classes to local youth. In 1959, the Committee purchased a building less than 200 feet from the Towers with the intent to develop the Watts Towers Art Center (WTAC). For over a decade the Committee oversaw all preservation efforts, including the sustainability of the WTAC. What was once considered the site of an obscure local landmark came to be seen as leitmotif of place-based creative interactions and progenitor of community-driven development.
In 1965, the Committee hired the architecture firm Kahn, Farrell and Associates to develop an expansion plan for the Towers and its adjacent art center and submit it to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The initial proposal was ultimately rejected since it extended beyond the scope of the art center’s primary objectives, which was geared toward providing arts education at a neighborhood scale. Within a year, however, a modified version resurfaced in the city’s plans to redevelop Watts in the aftermath of the 1965 uprising. Looking to display the Towers as a symbol of community resilience and promise, the city’s redevelopment renderings accorded unprecedented prominence to the Towers and offered a newly repurposed cultural facility to serve the general needs of the neighborhood. Deemed outside the Committee’s longstanding mission to maintain an arts-driven education center, the city plans were met with considerable opposition and were never implemented. Eventually, the WTAC broke ground for its new building in 1967 through the support of private endowments.
As tensions over expansion and conservation continued, coverage of the controversy fanned popular interest in the Towers, cultivating particular enthusiasm amongst an architectural audience. By the 1970s, the Towers appeared in Reyner Banham’s unconventional guide through what he defined as the city’s four ecologies. For Banham, the Towers stood out from “all the buildings in Los Angeles, they are almost too well known to need description,” even casting them as an important pilgrimage site rather than mere tourist destination. He set the Towers against the broader visual context of the region’s architecture, characterizing them as noteworthy architectural objects, attesting to the burgeoning consideration for a work and its relationship to its site that was taking place at the time.
While scholars have identified the Towers through formalist traditions, including associations Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Spain and “Gigli” structures displayed during the Gigli di Nola festival, not far from Rodia’s hometown of Avellino, the prevailing quality of the Towers is not their formal language but their relationship to Watts. Read synchronically along the long and storied transformations and challenges the neighborhood of Watts has endured, the role of the Watts Uprising in forging the cultural significance of the Towers cannot be underestimated. In the context of the Towers in this period, the value of the exchange between object and site can be directly traced to artwork produced in the immediate aftermath of the riots. It was in the days immediately following that WTAC director Noah Purifoy walked the streets of Watts with the musician Judson Powell and gathered junk and debris left from the smoldering sites burned down from looters and rioters. This act of collecting material directly from the urban environment fundamentally shifted California assemblage art into an urban-oriented artistic practice.
Adorned with broken glass, tiles, shells, and various found objects that Rodia collected from the immediate neighborhood, the Towers now stand as symbolic model for this sculptural practice that Purifoy developed. Today, the significance of the Towers rests in their mutability. In their ability to assume numerous identities, circulating as both a conductor of creativity and community, both marker of Rodia’s singular labor and important symbol of the socio-cultural values of Watts.
Banham, Reyner, and Joe Day. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Bauman, Robert. Race and the War on Poverty: From Watts to East L.A. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Gebhard, David, and Robert Winter. A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles & Southern California. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregine Smith, 1977.
Giudice, Luisa Del, ed. Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts: Art, Migrations, Development. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.
Goldstone, Bud, Arloa Goldstone, and Arloa Paquin Goldstone. The Los Angeles Watts Towers. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 1997.
Purifoy, Noah, and Ted Michel. Junk Art: 66 Signs of Neon. Los Angeles: 66 Signs of Neon, 1966.
Ray, MaryEllen Bell. The City of Watts, California: 1907 to 1926. Los Angeles: Rising Publications, 1985.
Schrank, Sarah. “Imagining the Watts Towers.” In Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles, 135-165. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Whiting, Cécile. “The Watts Towers as Urban Landmark.” In Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s, 138-167. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.