Dear Dirty America


Simon Rodia, Architect of Dreams

March 29
15:00 2012
Los Angeles
Nothing is so rare on the part of any man as an act of his own. 

                                                                           Ralph Waldo Emerson 

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Cheshire cat, when she disappeared, left her smile behind. Simon Rodia did the same thing. The Italian immigrant, born in Ribottoli at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, was here among us for 90 years, thirty-some of which he spent in Los Angeles. When he departed, Simon Rodia left behind his smile, Nuestro Pueblo, Watts Towers, a marvel of visionary architecture that soars above the desolation of South Central Los Angeles like a phoenix rising from its own ashes. 

Credit: Daniel Mayer
Simon Rodia’s biographical details are sketchy, unremarkable and rather dreary. Named Sabato (Sabbath) Rodia by parents who wanted him to be a priest, he received little schooling and could neither read nor write Italian or English. As a teenager he followed his elder brother to America, possibly to evade the draft. After a stay in Pennsylvania, where his brother had settled, he moved to Seattle, then to Los Angeles where he took up the trade of tile maker. 

In his adopted country, Sabato was known as “Sam” Rodia. However, the name “Simon”—a misapplication by a journalist in 1937—stuck, and Simon Rodia is the name that appears on the on-site plaque commemorating Watts Towers and the name by which Rodia is known to the world. 

Two broken marriages, the death of a daughter, two sons from whom he was painfully estranged and rarely saw, a growing dependence on alcohol, and a life of toil in a country whose language he could scarcely speak or understand and whose customs were strange to him—this was Rodia’s portion during his middle years. In later life he became increasingly withdrawn, solitary and single-mindedly preoccupied with the building of his fanciful creation on the site of his home at 1765 East 107th Street. To his neighbors in Watts, Simon Rodia was an eccentric, an urban recluse, “that crazy Italian.” 

When Rodia began work on the Towers at the age of forty-two he had no patron or other source of financial aid. He held a full-time job, laboring eight hours a day as a tile setter and cement finisher, then worked evenings, weekends, and nights, in every kind of weather and at his own expense, to build the miniature walled city he called Nuestro Pueblo. Rodia built Watts Towers by hand, alone, over a thirty-year period, without machine tools, without nails or bolts, without scaffolding, without written plans, and without concern for financial reward. Simon Rodia had no Guggenheim Fellowship, nor was his monumental effort supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities or by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation or by any foundation. Watts Towers is thus a symbol of a creative endeavor that flies in the face of all odds, the great achievement of one man working alone without financial help or help of any kind to build his version of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to his adopted country, the whimsical kingdom of Nuestro Pueblo which today has become an art Mecca visited each year by thousands of people from all over the world. 

Rodia’s homemade Taj Mahal both astounds and delights the eye with the chromatic brilliance and endless inventiveness of its pinnacle spires and loop-the-loops and the bright decorative detail of its Byzantine mosaics. Broken symmetry and a freewheeling juxtaposition of unexpected objects lend a Coney Island ambiance to this architectural fantasy at the end of a dead-end street in one of the world’s most inhuman cities. Watts Towers is a cohesive work consisting of seventeen sculptures including, in addition to the towers, a gazebo, a north and south wall, and the Ship of Marco Polo, the mast and tall spires of which are appropriately encrusted with hundreds of seashells, giving the brightly-tiled vessel the look of a dream galleon or a jeweled Venetian gondola carved from white marble. 

In his artful assemblage, Rodia has achieved what one might call “reverse trivialization.” Commonplace objects, taken out of their usual context and presented in a playful and imaginative way, reveal their intrinsic mystery and wonder, making us suddenly see them as through the eyes of a person from a distant century or a distant planet, or through the eyes of a child. 

In 1921, when Rodia bought his house at 1765 East 107th Street, Watts was a peaceful urban village squatting beside the railroad tracks. Neighbors knew each other and doors were left unlocked. Chickens scratched and pecked in every yard and each family had a cow, a horse or two, and a windmill for pumping water. The story of Watts is in fact a history-in-microcosm of the evolution of Los Angeles: from Eden to Armageddon in the space of a few generations. It is out of this milieu, the “magnificent desolation” of Los Angeles, that Rodia’s fantasy kingdom rises like a beacon of welcome to everyone who has not been assimilated by the machine culture. 

What was the source of Rodia’s inspiration? Certainly not his surroundings. Rather, his inspiration almost certainly came from the magical memories of his Compania childhood, somehow kept alive in his heart inviolate and untouched by the sordidness and banality of his outer world. Springing as he did from the Italian master builder tradition, it was Simon Rodia’s manifest destiny to create Watts Towers. As a boy, from the steep medieval streets of his Compania hill town near Nola, Rodia would have seen the cathedral spires of Naples, and in Nola the great Roman mosaics and the beribboned wooden towers carried in the Festival of Lilies, celebrating San Gennaro, Nola’s patron saint. 

It is also reasonable to assume that as a child he visited the Romanesque cathedral at Matera, and that he saw, at least from the shore, Castel dell’Ovo, built in 1154 by William I on the island of Megaris in the Bay of Naples at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. 

Is Watts Towers folk art, outsider art, art brut, or no art at all? This question is best left to the international art establishment with its penchant for classification and its ingrained reluctance to recognize any artist who has not studied at the Sorbonne, the National Academy of Design, the New York Academy of Art or the School of Fine Arts. Artists who conform to the conventions of the latest chic are judged to be good or great and those who work outside of the current vogue are ignored. Yet it is precisely the rigid structure of these arbitrary schools of art that often prevents vital and innovative work, and the most valuable artists are those who have not come under the deadening and stultifying influence of academic mentors. 

To realize the truth of this we have only to look at the stunning artifacts left behind by the Native American peoples who flourished on “our” continent for some 20,000 years before the invasion of the white man, or the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime paintings, or the native art of Polynesia that fascinated Gauguin, or the Iberian and West African carvings that inspired Picasso. To these add the cave paintings at Lascaux. 

Although we know very little about the Paleolithic artists who created the magnificent cave paintings at Lascaux, there is one thing we can say for certain: they didn’t study at the Sorbonne. The truth is that the international art establishment, with its credentials, canons and criteria, has no more idea of what constitutes great art or even of what constitutes art per se than the New York publishers have of what constitutes literature. 

During the years of Rodia’s residence in LA, 1921 to 1954, the city’s population was growing. By applying US Census Bureau demographic indices to the population figures for the period we can estimate that there were, during Rodia’s tour of duty, about 400,000 professional people—that is, 400,000 doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, judges and college professors—living and working in Los Angeles. These would have been primarily men, white men, affluent white men who enjoyed a moneyed lifestyle and the social and career benefits conferred by higher education. How many of these privileged individuals made a contribution of anything like the magnitude of that made by the illiterate Italian immigrant, Simon Rodia? 

Simon Rodia was the hero of his own life. Out of the sorrow and disorder of his personal melodrama, he created an art that partakes of the transpersonal. The Marco Polo of his own imagination, Simon Rodia made a thirty-year odyssey, a voyage of discovery in a dream ship, in a treasure ship called Watts Towers. He turned himself inside out, revealing the shining lineaments of his soul, made manifest in a work of visionary architecture that is both inspiring and redeeming. 

I find it significant that Simon Rodia called his creation Nuestro Pueblo (italics mine). Not my town, but our town. Our town. Watts Towers was Rodia’s gift to us, to Los Angeles, to his fellow Americans, and to the world. 

As Americans, we are all of us immigrants, if we take the trouble to go back a few generations. Our ancestors came here from Europe and Africa, from Asia, from the Pacific Islands and from every other corner of the globe. For this reason, a valuable contribution made by a fellow immigrant—especially one fresh off the boat—moves us deeply. Here’s Watts Towers, and one of our boys built it. So, hats off to you, Sam! Hats off to Simon Rodia, Architect of Dreams. 

Donald O’Donovan is a novelist, optioned screenwriter, and voice actor with film and audio book credits. His novels include Tarantula WomanThe SugarhouseNight Train, and Highway (find them here). Excerpts from Night Train have been posted at DDA. He lives mostly in Los Angeles, and can be reached

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