1. They were created by one man, by hand. Minnesota’s pretty proud of our largest-ball-of-twine-rolled-by-one-man, but even we have to tip our hats to Simon Rodia (1879-1965), who between 1921 and 1954 built three behemoth towers and a series of ancillary structures alone, by hand, in his own Los Angeles backyard.
2. They’re super-strong. After Rodia finished his epic artwork and moved away, the city planned to demolish the structures on safety grounds. A neighborhood committee demonstrated the towers’ safety in 1959 by attaching a cable to each tower and using a winch to apply thousands of pounds of pressure. The winch broke, and the towers stayed.
3. They’re in an urban setting. There are local residents who remember playing around the towers as children while Rodia worked, and kids are still running and playing around the towers today. The towers are part of their urban fabric, not sequestered in a museum or sculpture garden.
4. They’ve become iconic symbols of their neighborhood. People from all over the world can see an image of the towers and say, “Watts.” Not just “California” or “Los Angeles,” but “Watts.”
5. They’re loved by their neighbors. The towers are now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and receive the attention of expert preservationists, but they’re most dearly prized by neighborhood residents who recognize them as a unique gift bequeathed by Rodia to the community.
6. They anchor the campus of an arts center. The Watts Towers Arts Center, which started its programming in 1970, has become a cultural force in Los Angeles and beyond, hosting art exhibits, literary events, music festivals, and even piano lessons for local kids.
7. They’re not Gaudí ripoffs. Many observers note the stylistic parallels between the towers and the Spanish architecture of Antoni Gaudí—but Rodia was primarily influenced by architectural forms he remembered from his boyhood in Italy. He didn’t become aware of Gaudí’s work until late in his life.
8. They’re beacons of community art. L.A. residents embrace the towers not just as unforgettable landmarks, but as testaments to the power of community creativity. Rodia didn’t go to art school; he was a manual laborer. The international recognition that has greeted his work is evidence that you don’t need permission or credentials to be a great artist, and in that sense Rodia continues to be an inspiration—in Watts and beyond.
9. They create a sense of intergenerational continuity. Watts has changed in many ways—demographically, socially, economically, technologically—since Rodia’s time, but his towers have been embraced by succeeding generations as a reminder of the neighborhood’s past. The fact that a sculpture created by a 20th-century Italian immigrant has become the symbol of a thriving 21st-century African-American arts community is testament to how the arts can build bridges among people and across time.
10. They’re just plumb crazy. Why would a man spend 33 years of his life building enormous, bizarre towers in his backyard—and then say, “okay, I’m done,” moving out of town and never laying eyes on the towers again? Simon Rodia had a vision. That vision was beautiful, but also—like a lot of great art—absolutely fucking nuts.