Watts Towers / Nuestro Pueblo (Part 1)

Public Art in Public Places


"I had in mind to do something big." - Simon Rodia
At a height of 99.5 feet, the Watts Towers are a striking example of 20th century American folk art sculpture and mosaic. They are one of the most prominent landmarks in the United States, and with the site's other structures, sculptures and mosaics they have served as a beacon of cultural arts and activism in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles for more than half a century. 
"Outsider Art"
Working alone over a period of 30 years and without formal arts or architectural training, Rodia's mammoth effort is also notable as "outsider art" or "art brut," as well as "naïve art."  

Jean Dubuffet on “art brut”:
"Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere.”

As evidence of his hand-made work, Rodia included in his mosaic panels the imprints of his basic tools: hammers, chissels, and files, accompanied by horseshoes (a sign of good luck).

Sculptural features like the "Cactus Garden" illustrate another facet of Rodia's artistic novelty.

Rodia's Ship
Rodia's driving concept for the 17 metal and concrete towers was to symbolize a masted ship, pointing east toward his homeland of Italy.  Higher and more complex towers-as-masts followed his first at the forefront, the "ship's bow."   A "sail" spans two towers, and a "ship's wheel" is built into a tower framework.

This multi-tiered "Ship Bench" sculpture is one of Rodia's earliest pieces.

Every Surface a Canvas
Rodia's work is famous for the decorative use of "found objects" applied to the mortar-covered towers, spires, archways, gazebo, and numerous features and panels.  Fragments of ceramic, pottery, glass, sea shells and rocks are common. Much of the ceramic and pottery material came from damaged ware discarded by nearby factories where he occasionally worked.  Unfortunately, many unique pieces that originally topped the spires, such as tea pots and bowls, are gone.  His street-side mosaic panels, however, are largely intact.

Rodia made much use of "bottle green" glass from 7-up, Canada Dry and Bubble Up soda bottles, and cobalt blue glass from Milk of Magnesia medicine bottles.

This spire is one of the few still retaining its "cap" - an early 20th century glass electrical insulator.

A crowned spire, with Rodia's second date of 1923, illustrates the unique decorative effect of his use of white sea shells.

Ceramic mosaic panels along the site's boundary also include inset sections and incised patterns.

Structural Integrity
Rodia had no formal engineering training, yet he achieved structurally stable towers based on his own ideas and experience.  Beginning with a 14-inch mortar/concrete foundation, he built conical columns of structural steel rebar wrapped in wire mesh and covered with a unique mortar or concrete.  Public safety concerns about the towers' structural stability eventually arose, and the City of Los Angeles required proof of structural stability to avoid having the towers razed.  
Structural Integrity - The Stress Test
Public safety concerns were satisfied in 1959 when the Watts Towers successfully passed an engineering stress test, designed by aerospace engineer Norman J. "Bud" Goldstone.  The test placed a 10,000-pound load on the tallest tower, equivalent to 70 mile-an-hour winds.  At full load, the tower's horizontal deflection was no more than 1 1/4 inches, at which point the the cable snapped and the crowd of concerned observers cheered.
From "Ship" to "Pueblo":  Part 2
Just as Rodia's Towers are lauded as architectural and engineering marvels, so has the Nuestro Pueblo place itself, on the ground, both astonished and charmed the world.   Part 2 of WATTS TOWERS / NUESTRO PUEBLO presents "Nuestro Pueblo" as the social place Rodia intended it to be, full of sculptural and decorative beauty and whimsy.
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