Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

Years ago, when all I was interested in doing on vacation was visiting buildings and drinking beer at breweries and microbreweries, I made a map of Los Angeles. Well, "made" is probably giving me a little more credit than I deserve. I BOUGHT a map of L.A. and marked on it the location of all the buildings I ever wanted to see in and around the city. That map, which was finalized about 15 years ago between my second and third trips to Los Angeles, included a companion bound volume with information about each of the buildings. I'm a nerd, I know. Over the last 23 plus years, I've methodically visited almost every one of the spots on that map.

But not number 88. Not quite anyway. Number 88 on my map sits at the end of East 107th Street in the Watts neighborhood just across the 105 (or I-105 for those of you not familiar with the highways of L.A.) to the north of Compton. And Compton's not exactly a spot tourists flock to. Number 88 is the site of the Watts Towers and as of a little more than a month ago, it was the number one unvisited building on my map. Although calling it a building might be either stretching the truth or not giving the Towers enough credit, depending on your point of view. Today, it's no longer on the unvisited portion of the list.

I'd wanted to visit the Watts Towers almost as soon as I discovered the architecture of Los Angeles but somehow it always slipped to the bottom of my agenda for any particular trip as I opted to visit the Getty Center or one of many Frank Lloyd Wright houses or some building of Frank Gehry's or whatever else took my fancy. I did actually drive by and stop at the Towers once in 2003 but wasn't allowed to linger any longer than it took to snap a quick picture because my girlfriend at the time had visions of Crips and Bloods dueling in the streets in broad daylight. So I took what I could get then and now I know I was cheated. I don't feel cheated anymore.

Most people have likely never heard of the Watts Towers, so let me explain a little. Imagine you live on a smallish plot of land in a house you've worked hard all your life to afford. You like the neighborhood. The folks that live around you are mostly just like you: hardworking people pulling nine to five shifts (or longer) to make their lives and the lives of their children better every day. Your neighbors have pride in their properties and some of them might even choose to spend a good amount of their free time developing their garden and yard, making it into something they are supremely proud of.

Now imagine your neighbor is Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant who is employed as a construction worker whenever he can find work. Like some of your other neighbors, Simon spends a lot of time in his yard. But instead of planting his garden with perennials or annuals or maybe even starting a small vegetable plot, he does something different. Way different. In fact, he spends pretty much all his time from the early 1920s until 1954 building a series of towers out of scrap steel, concrete and broken bottles and plates. These towers over time fill his entire property, ultimately topping out at about 100 feet. And you thought your neighbors were a little odd.

That's about the best way I can introduce you to the Watts Towers.

The Towers are pretty much the ultimate work of folk art. They are simple, crude, unsophisticated, born of a single person's passion, an incredible feat of structural engineering and surprisingly beautiful and complex in their elegance and detail. As a point of reference, they closely resemble the works of the Spanish Art Nouveau architect Antoni Gaudi and not just because both men used broken tiles or pottery or soda bottles (in Rodia's case) as surface treatment embedded in concrete walls. There is a lightness and structural purity in the works of both men. But whereas Gaudi drew and others built, Rodia didn't draw but instead built the whole thing straight out of his imagination.

Simon Rodia was born in Rivottoli, Italy in the late 1870s. He came to the United States when his parents emigrated to Pennsylvania along with his older brother sometime around 1894. Eventually he made his way west, settling in Seattle, Washington. He married, had three children and then one day, according to our tour guide, he just picked up and left and never saw his family again. Not exactly the coolest thing to do. 

In 1921, after making his way south from Seattle to Los Angeles while working jobs along the way, he bought a plot of land at 1765 East 107th Street and shortly thereafter he began to build. Up. He built almost continuously for the next 33 years, erecting a monument to his new home and the ship that brought him to the United States. He called his sculpture Nuestro Pueblo (or "our town"), making towers that were also masts and even equipping the finished product with a wheel, which reminded him of the wheel of the ship that brought him and his family across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Towers, which he built with no scaffolding and only tile setter's tools, would consume his life. He poured everything he had into the enterprise. All his free time and all his spare money, even keeping it going through the Great Depression of the 1930s. He re-married but this time, she left him, a result of all the time he spent building and building.

Then in 1954, Rodia quit. He deeded his property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez, California, never to return. Within a year, his house at 1765 East 107th Street burned down but the Towers remained. 62 years later they are still there. They have been passed from organization to organization but now belong to the Watts Towers Arts Center. They have survived both sideways looks from neighbors and demolition efforts from the City of Los Angeles, who gave up after the Towers broke the crane they were using to demolish Rodia's work of art.

The Center offers tours Thursday through Sunday and they are definitely worth the trip. The tours are cheap and short. And by that I mean like $7 cheap and 15 minutes. But they are the only way to get inside the fence and walk among the Towers that Rodia created. And this experience for me was not to be missed. Despite the whirlwind tour, you can always go back and peek through the fence once the tour and the ensuing video (which shows Rodia in action and is awesome) are done.

There's real genius here. His work is almost derivative of Catalan architects of the early 20th century but it's really impossible for him to have known anything much about their work considering he was more or less a contemporary and he was an ocean and a continent away. Rodia for sure was no model father or husband but what he left to the world can be admired on its own level. If nothing else, you have to admire the drive and determination it took him to get out there pretty much every day and build something almost 100 feet high on his spare time over a 33 year period.

I love both the overall lightness of what he created and the details he used to pull it all together. It's astounding on a big picture level how he could have pulled this thing off and on a micro level he adorned every surface with detail which is either relatable in scale or content. I love the concrete corn cobs made from cornbread molds and the flowers stamped from faucet handles. I also love the array of tile colors which are really just cups and saucers and things like 7 Up bottles. It's all pop art and folk art and individual determination and strange neighbor behavior.

Number 88 is in the books and there's still a lot left for me to discover of Los Angeles. It didn't take long but it was definitely worth it. The Towers (and indeed the adjacent Watts Towers Art Center) are perspective altering. The point of travel for me is to see life from another point of view and Watts and the Watts Towers and Compton are worlds away from Arlington, Virginia. You don't need to go halfway around the world to get a different perspective. I'm glad I spent an hour or so in this world.

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