Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Watts Towers, a first look

kw: vacations, sightseeing

They comprise the largest work of art produced by one person working unaided. For 33 years, Simon Rodia worked alone to build these towers, using no blueprints, scaffolding, welds or bolts, using only tile-setter's tools. The tallest tower is 99½ feet (30.3 meters). When the city of Los Angeles wanted to destroy them as an "earthquake hazard", a consortium of preservationists made a good case for an engineering test. When the main tower was unaffected by a 10,000 lb test, they were deemed safer than the skyscrapers then a-building downtown, and allowed to stand.

Their innards are reinforcing rod, textured steel bars, wired together (no welds), and covered with a concrete coat a couple inches thick. Into this coating, the artist embedded shells, tiles of many sorts, pieces of rock, broken china and glass, the bottoms of colored bottles, and other found materials. He must have spent a lot of time collecting stuff! You can find out a lot more about the Watts Towers at the Watts Towers website and in this Wikipedia article.

My father, his friend, and I visited the afternoon of March 10, 2008. Dad has been there a few times, but it was the first time for me. This picture captures the tiny feeling I had looking up at them. But there is a lot more than just a few towers. At their web site, you'll find out about the Gazebo, the two decorated walls, the staircase, and other marvels built into and around them.

A closeup shows examples of the seashells, dinner plates, and tiles used for decoration. Other panels had stamped impressions in the concrete and rock and slag coatings.

The Watts Towers Arts Center has been set up nearby to teach and lead tours of Rodia's monument. We visited on a Monday, when everything is closed. Tours are scheduled only on Friday-Sunday, and the Center is closed on Monday. We did talk to a guard, who gave us a brochure with Rodia's biography and a short description of the towers' details. The web sites above are much fuller.

Conserving the structures has turned into a time-consuming job for a number of people. When an earthquake did come, the towers pretty much shrugged it off. However, the concrete cracked in a number of places, so people had to remove and restore some sections to prevent rusting of the steel inside. The towers were completely photographed in the 1970s, so whenever a piece of tile or other decoration is found on the ground, they can get it back to the spot it came from. Still, I found a number of gaps where stuff had fallen off and not yet been restored.

These details aside, the Towers are awesome.

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