Simon Rodia built the Watts Towers. He had an idea to start making something, and he just kind of kept going with it for 30 years, adding stuff as he went along. He didn’t have a master plan, as far as I know. This video captures a lot of it.
I think there is something beautiful and perfect here. I love the fact that he just worked away on his own. It’s as if he created a doodle out of steel, mortar, and bits of ‘rubbish’ that he found lying around. The doodle kept on growing, day by day. It’s a work of art (whatever that means), but it’s also tactile, like a climbing frame. I can’t help but feel that he managed to build his own world that he could play in, climb up, view the larger world from. And it cost him very little, because he didn’t have much money. He picked up bottles, broken tiles, and all kinds of rubbish (bowling balls, cups, etc), that he then set into the mortar, like a mosaic.
I first came across Rodia 15 years ago when I was reading Thomas Pynchon. I think Rodia is a presence in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Rodia is definitely mentioned in A Journey Into The Mind of Watts. For Pynchon, Rodia becomes a symbol of organic harmony, or something like that, because Rodia lives within and makes use of his immediate environment. He probably even becomes his environment, or his environment becomes him. There is a simplicity in this that I find absolutely compelling. There is this totally simple and basic sense that he just picked up things around him and made something out of them. And he just used the building methods that he already knew best, such as floor tiling (he was a tiler!).
And it is worth mentioning that Watts is generally considered a hostile and dangerous place. The Watts riots of the late 1960s set a tone that Pynchon explored in A Journey…. So for Rodia to live in Watts, and to create his towers in Watts, is itself quite something. Watts is not an art gallery or a wealthy suburb where ‘art’ or ‘architecture’ would normally be found. So Rodia wasn’t authorised in any way. He hadn’t earned some right to go ahead with his project. He just did it. I’m imagining that he didn’t have planning permission. And I’m actually wondering how I would feel if one of my neighbours just started building a 100 foot tower next to where I live.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. But Rodia is becoming a hero for me. I mostly wander from one job to the next, and roughly have little photography projects on the go. My life feels a bit confused and random, as if I haven’t found how to fit in with what is around me. The photography is great, but I’m not sure if it makes up for all the other crap.
When I was a young boy I used to run around with my twin brother through the thick bracken behind my parents’ house. We would uproot the bracken to make a clearing. We would build teepees out of the bracken stalks, and we would weave the bracken stalks and ferns together to make matting for the walls. We would strip the fronds from the bracken to make spears. We learned to throw the spears. We made war in the bracken. We made our own little world in the bracken. We used what we had around us, what came to hand. Even as children, we became ingenious little builders, experts in making use of what came to hand.
But as I got older, I think I lost this vital connection with what was around me. I got caught up in a world that other people had created. Schools, 9-5s. I live in a world that I have not built!
What I see in Rodia is a man who created contact with the world around him. He lived in a small world that he had created himself. This world was also beautiful.
I like that. It seems very right.
(After writing this post, I later saw Jarvis Cocker’s excellent two part documentary/travelogue, Journeys Into the Outside. He visits the Watts Towers at the end of episode two. I think the documentary is categorizing Rodia and others as outsider artists, since they simply work from their own ideas, are self taught, not funded, not supported by galleries, not part of a ‘system’ etc. If like me you love Jarvis and Rodia, then this documentary will speak to you. Jarvis wears a cheesy red sun visor on his American road trip, and keeps a pasty faced look throughout! There should be more documentaries like this.)