January 28, 2019

Photo Essay: These Towers That Bend, But Never Break

Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Visiting Watts Towers was one of the first touristy things I did after moving to LA in 2011. I didn't know a thing about folk art then, and I didn't exactly understand the appeal of these sky-piercing spires.

circa 2011

I didn't think they were very pretty up close. At least, not from the sidewalk level.

circa 2011

Having driven past them and witnessed their shape-shifting firsthand many times over the last eight years, I'd begun to get it. Especially after brushing up on folk art and learning a thing or two about mosaic tile and glasswork.

circa 2011

By the time I was really itching to go back, Watts Towers had closed for restoration, leaving the gate locked and the site's admirers out in the cold.

circa 2011

Maybe Simon Rodia never intended tourists to wander under the towers he created from 1921 to 1954. After all, though it's now a state park, this was the Italian immigrant's private property, where he worked and slept. (His house unfortunately burned down in 1955 and will not be rebulit.)

circa 2011

Maybe he only ever meant people to see it from afar, in the distance—a beacon like the Eiffel Tower in the non-existent LA skyline. Or maybe he only knew what the towers looked like from his own eye level as he worked on it, having climbed up the edifice to the top as though he were on a set of monkeybars in his backyard.

Then again, he called his creation Nuestro Pueblo ("Our Town"), which suggests that he didn't build the towers just for himself. Besides, he reportedly used to let kids climb the towers.

Last week, I got to see the Towers as Rodia saw them—up close, at their peaks—and I gasped at their beauty.

I strapped on a hard hat (courtesy of Western Chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology) and embarked on a tour led by restoration project manager Dr. Mark Gilberg, director of the Booth Conservation Center at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He's become intimately familiar with the found materials that Rodia used in the construction of Watts Towers—not only to ornament it, but to also fill the bases of the towers.

Though you can see Malibu tile (Rodia worked at Malibu Potteries for a time), Gladding-McBean, Batchelder, Bauer Pottery, Fiestaware, Metlox, Catalina pottery, and all sorts of other ceramics, porcelain, china... well as bottles, insulators, and seashells of varying species (from mussels to clams and other bivalves)...

... apparently what you can't see under the buttresses, inside of the platforms and other structures (like the "wedding cake" and the "Ship of Marco Polo") includes rubble, sand, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

And Rodia poured concrete on top of it all.

Though Rodia’s larger-than-life sculptures had once been condemned and ordered for demolition, they were saved in the late 1950s when they withstood a stress test of a 10,000-pound load (equivalent to that of a full-blown hurricane).

That's not to say, however, that they haven't cracked. Or that they don't tilt with the wind—or lean away from the sun.

But that didn't keep us from climbing three stories up the scaffolding to look at the towers—two measuring nearly 100 feet tall—for ourselves.

Dr. Gilberg says that most of the actual restoration work the LACMA team is doing is over the patchwork done previously by California State Parks in the 1980s (mostly because the failure rate of repairs to concrete is "unacceptably high").

Fortunately, they haven't found a lot of new damage. At least, not that they can tell.

Then again, unlike a traditional building, there are no blueprints for Watts Towers. No one alive would remember Watts without the towers, before they were built.

So, quite a bit of detective work has gone into the rhyme and reason behind various shapes and features—whether decorative or infrastructural. (The rings that encircle the towers are probably both.)

There were some water features included on the ground level—including a fish pond at the North Wall—but they've long dried up, and documentation is scarce.

A lot of the piecing together necessary for the conservation of the towers is much like the assemblage of shards of broken colored glass and mirror, dishes, and teacups.

Sometimes you only get a fraction of the entire picture.

But together, all those fragments seem to make something cohesive that works.

In addition to filling the fissures with mortar, sharp edges will be filed down and everything will eventually be sealed to make it more watertight than it's ever been before. (When Rodia reinforced the concrete, it wasn't with solid rebar, but metal tubes that created a hidden system of plumbing that eventually self-destructed when water collected and corroded everything that sat in it.)

Other mysteries still abound—like whether there's a hidden fortune behind any of those broken pieces or if Rodia's wife is buried somewhere in the cement.

No evidence of either has been found. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. We're still learning a lot about Watts Towers.

"Their actual presence is testimony to a genuinely original creative spirit." 
—Reyner Banham, The Architecture of Four Ecologies

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Photo Essay: A Shrine of Sacred Garbage
Photo Essay: A Curious Collection of Castoffs as Craft

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