Artist Profile – Simon Rodia

Simon Rodia

1879–1965, lived and worked in Los Angeles, California

Watts Towers

(detail): Watts Towers, / 1921-55 / Los Angeles, California, / Photo: Seymour Rosen estate / Courtesy SPACES

Few works of vernacular architecture have captured the popular imagination like the Watts Towers. By some accounts the largest extant work of visual art ever created by one man, the otherworldly concrete and steel spires that artist Simon Rodia called “Nuestro Pueblo” (“Our Town”) have become a near-universal emblem for the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a renowned monument variously referenced by novelist Don DeLillo, poet Robert Duncan, jazz legend Charles Mingus, the 1973 soul music and Civil Rights documentary Wattstax, and even the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise. But the international acclaim for the Towers and the local ubiquity of their likeness almost never emerged—repeatedly threatened by disapproving neighbors and dubious city officials, the Watts Towers barely survived their creator’s 1955 departure from L.A. But after an astonishing 1959 safety test demonstrated the structural solidity of the Towers, the site was allowed to remain, and has since been preserved and protected as a State Historical Park and National Historic Landmark. Sabato Rodia (known to friends as Simon or Sam) was born in a small town in southern Italy in 1879, but emigrated to the United States in his early teens. He labored in Pennsylvania coal mines and elsewhere in construction, eventually ending up in California, first the San Francisco Bay area––where he married and had two children––and eventually in Los Angeles, where he worked for many years at Malibu Pottery and preached for a Mexican tent-revival congregation. Rodia carefully chose the triangular plot of land he bought to construct his masterpiece, and he spent thirty-three years (1921–54) diligently working on the Towers, with an intuitive vision, simple hand tools, and window-washer’s equipment in lieu of blueprints, bolts, scaffolding, or electrical tools or welders. Bearing an often-cited resemblance to the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, the Watts Towers represent a remarkable feat of engineering: Rodia built a buttressed armature of steel rods covered with wire mesh, which he coated with mortar and decorated with a mosaic surface of 70,000 bits of pottery, ceramic tiles, glass bottles, seashells, and other found material. “Nuestro Pueblo” actually encompasses seventeen organically linked sculptures, including the so-called “Ship of Marco Polo” and three primary towers, the tallest of which measures 99 feet. In 1955, following repeated community clashes over alleged vandalism of the Towers, Rodia gave his property to a neighbor and abruptly moved away to a boarding house in Martinez, California, eschewing curious admirers and well-wishers and completely distancing himself from his achievement and its supporters. When he died in 1965, he was honored with a memorial service at “Nuestro Pueblo.” The Towers remained miraculously undamaged when the Watts Riots broke out a few weeks later.

Artist’s Work