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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Without Precedent: The Watts Towers

  • Author(s): Harrison, Thomas
  • et al.

This article begins by addressing the oft-asked but never answered question of why Sam Rodia built his Watts Towers — one of the most perplexing architectural structures of the twentieth century. It ends with the conclusion that the finality of such a work is a complex combination of factors that could not have been foreseen when the Italian immigrant set out on his thirty-three year endeavor in 1921: (a) the physical form of the towers themselves, with their agglutinative, rung-upon-rung structure, which were largely improvised, (b) the implicit hermeneutics of such a structure, considering the fact that its towering verticality stands ten meters away from railroad tracks upon which 100,000 commuters passed each week, watching this artist “perform” his work and questioning by proxy their own horizontal projects, (c) the almost fortuitous “discovery” of these towers after Rodia abandoned them in 1954 by intellectually motivated members of the University of Southern California community, who proceeded to save them from destruction at the hands of the city, (d) their close association with Watts and the sociopolitical impoverishment the neighborhood symbolized, even though this Watts was no longer the one Rodia inhabited, and (e) the analogy thus established between the art brut nature of this work by an indigent immigrant and the cultural space it occupied. The fortuitousness of so much of this is not only appropriate to the imponderable towers; it is fully what they are, at this point in time, and a great source of their fascination.

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