Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers of Los Angeles: A Multi-Faceted Analysis
Paul A. Harris
I first heard about the Watts Towers when I was a boy growing up
Vermont. Jazz musician Don Cherry showed me the cover of his record
'Brown Rice,' and told me about growing up in Watts and watching the Towers
go up. The place had always been an inspiration to him--as an expression
of human creativity, of improvisational processes, global consciousness,
I have lived in Southern California for more than two decades now,
and the Watts Towers have etched themselves into my mind and spirit as well.
In the following work, I juxtapose photos I've taken with several different
semi-autonomous meditations on the site. I begin with some general
remarks about the Towers, provide a brief sketch of Simon Rodia, and then
make several passes through the site, looking at and thinking about it in
different ways indicated by the linked table of contents below. I welcome
feedback of any kind!
“In the universe, movement is given prior to everything”—Paul Klee.
The remarkable set of structures known today as The Watts Towers
of Los Angeles were built from 1921 to 1955 by Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant
construction worker. The route to the Towers takes one through streets peppered
with hairdressers, soul food
restaurants, and wooden churches. Amid small, dilapidated houses with
barred windows, where dogs bark behind iron fences and wrecked cars sit on
cement blocks, one arrives at a triangular plot of land at 107th place in
Watts, where the Towers suddenly rise up, stunning the eye. Rodia
used free-standing steel piping encased in cement to build three towers and
various skeletal structures on the site of his home. Embedded
in the cement are shards of glass, china, soda bottles, tiles and other debris
Rodia collected on his way home each day. Every inch of the 400
square meter site bears some decorative motif,
some symmetrical impression or carefully placed fragment. The minute
pieces are distributed precisely, so as to form different kinds of patterns,
as if the entire site were a mosaic hung along several different structures.
Of course, any attempt to render the Watts Towers in words fails.
The verbal register cannot replicate the visual referent or experience
one has in mind. But the visual field is also so saturated at the site,
that the eye also comes to feel inadequate to the task of taking it all in.
The site remains elusive, enigmatic, and dynamic—every visit one walks through,
looks at, mulls over, and sees a different site—no matter how many times
I go in a given period, different sights and insights present themselves
each time. My title is meant to evoke this encompassing, intuitive
feeling induced by the Watts Towers: it entrains one to see with the mind
and think through the eye.
It may sound strange, but I had visited the Watts Towers sporadically for years before I looked at them and wondered, how did he do it? How did Simon Rodia construct this site—allegedly the largest artwork made by one person, featuring the tallest free-standing, slender reinforced columns in the world. And how did he do this, without any known plan, design, or preconceived set of goals? Apparently, he did set out to perform some mind of remarkable feat; he repeatedly said to visitors, “I wanted to do something big. To be remembered, you have to be bad bad or good good.”
The more one studies the Towers, the clearer it becomes that Rodia’s process had to have been incremental and cumulative. Jazz musician Charles Mingus, himself a great improviser of structure and pattern, recalls from his childhood in Watts that Rodia “was always changing his ideas while he worked and tearing down what he wasn’t satisfied with and starting over again, so pinnacles tall as a two-story building would rise up and disappear and rise again. What was there yesterday mightn’t be there next time you looked, but then another lacy-looking tower would spring up in its place” (Mingus 37). Rodia seems to have learned by trial and error, utilizing skills he had acquired as a laborer and then experimenting with materials and teaching himself what he needed to know in order to do what he decided he wanted to do at each subsequent step of his project.
Study of the site over the years reveals many details of Rodia’s methods.
He built the towers without scaffolding, without using any machine tools,
without any nails, bolts, drills or welding. He brought home scrap steel
rods from work sites, and bent them by slipping them under the railroad tracks
that abutted the property. The joints where steel rods overlap were
held together with metal mesh and chicken wire, and then packed with cement.
These joints have an intricate internal structure of triangles and tetrahedrons,
and the ‘socket foot’ connections he made are now known as the Rodia Joint.
Drawing on his experience as a cement laborer, Rodia made up his own compound,
adding sand and clay from the surrounding fields to cement, yielding the
denser, heavier mortar in which the decorative elements of the Towers are
embedded. These elements are also practical—the ceramic and glass materials
protect the cement from rain. The towers were built in
concentric rings, and on the north, shady side of each tower, one can see
a ladder Rodia made for himself to climb up and carry a pail of wet cement
and his tools as the structure grew. Around the central column of each
tower, he reinforced vertical supports with horizontal bands circling the
core, elegantly constricting the spokes as the spires rose in height. When
we worked, he was attached to the structure only by a window washer’s belt,
which barely held him during the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.
Apparently, his penchant for building began around 1917 when he
put up a tiled fence on his former property. The pleasure he found
in constructing and decorating the fence led to further experiments, including
large planters, a merry-go-round, and fish pond—all made in the steel-reinforced,
mortar-covered, highly decorated mode that the Towers would exploit.
In 1920, Rodia and Benita separated and he married Carmen, a Mexican immigrant.
In 1921, he bought a triangular plot of land at the end of 107th street in
Watts for one dollar down and a dollar a week and began to work. Carmen
left soon afterwards, unable to bear the constant noise of trains and Rodia’s
devotion to the Towers project. He started from the far corner of the
triangle from his house, and worked back towards home—both physically and
spiritually—for decades. If this life-work cost Rodia his marriage, some
say it cured his alcoholism; he later attested that working on it constantly
made him “forget to drink wine.”
Rodia’s abrupt, impulsive manner is felt right to the end of his story. In 1955, Rodia left the Towers, giving the deed to the property to his neighbor Louis Sauceda, and got on a bus to Martinez, California. He lived there in a two-bedroom apartment until his death from a short illness in 1965.
Though the experience differs for every person who visits the Watts Towers, they never fail to make a very distinct impression. In addition to representing a remarkable feat, they exert expressive, aesthetic, and even spiritual powers. These qualities make it inevitable to speculate about possible models, origins, or sources of inspiration that informed Rodia’s work. Rodia’s reticence and glibly dismissive tone in response to inquiries about he and his work make it difficult to reconstruct his intentions, emotions, or mindset regarding the site. Even Rodia’s name for the site, Nuestro Pueblo, has been interpreted in different ways: it may mean “Our Town” or “Our People”; it also may be a reference to the original name of Los Angeles, El Pueblo Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles.
Combining research and reflection, I have arrived at one image of the Watts Towers as a kind of local monument to a global imaginary. So, in what sense do local and global forces pervade the site? First, there is the discovery by scholars that Rodia may have been constructing material expressions of childhood memories. In their 1972 essay “The Watts Towers and the Giglio Tradition,” I. Sheldon Posen and Daniel Franklin Ward reported their discovery that the Towers resemble ceremonial towers paraded annually in the Giglio festival that originated in Nola, a town near Rodia’s village in Italy (see picture). The Giglio festival, now celebrated in Brooklyn as well, commemorates the kidnapping, liberation and return of Santo Paulinus, then Bishop of Nola. The general construction and shape of the eight wood and paper towers carried in the parade are similar to Rodia’s Towers. An additional link between the Giglio festival and Rodia’s work is that, in addition to the towers, a ship modeled on a medieval galleon is also carried at the festival, and the first structure Rodia built on the site is a small ship which closely resembles the ship in his hometown parade.
Rodia called this structure the Ship of Marco Polo or the Ship of Columbus. Perhaps the ship memorializes the long journey Rodia took at age 15 to America. In retrospect, Marco Polo also seems a fitting prototype for Rodia—explorer of territories he did not understand, sailing into uncharted waters, and the source of many unauthorized tales about his life adventures…. Taking these different images together, the Towers become an interface to a global imaginary. A fairy-tale quality lurks about them, and they look almost like a child’s drawing. Simultaneously though, they are like a ship for people, “our town,” that takes flight and circumnavigates the globe. The global imaginary fits well with Rodia’s own free spirit and varied experience and interests. He seems to have had as big a a penchant for collecting images and ideas as debris, and he must have inhabited eclectic, imaginary lands as he worked. Charles Mingus recalls that when people came around to watch him, Rodia “rattled off about Amerigo Vespucci, Julius Caesar, Buffalo Bill and all kinds of things he read in the old encyclopedia he had in his house, but most of the time it sounded to Charles like he was speaking a foreign language” (Mingus 38).
The Watts Towers certainly constitute a monument to the local environment
and its history. In its very composition, it is continuous with and
shaped by its surroundings in several ways. The towers evoke the trains
so integral to the growth of Los Angeles: the steel Rodia
used to build the structures was bent on the nearby tracks, and Rodia chose
the land in part because it sat at the intersection of two train lines.
Today, each time the Blue Line metro trains pass, the towers shake.
The Towers also contain the ocean and nearby beaches, in the form of the shells
Rodia collected. To mimic local fauna, he built the likeness of a cactus
out of little green glass shards stuck in cylindrical cement mounds. As a
whole, the Towers site today serves as something like a museum of local history,
in that the site’s 15,000 square feet of surface record significant facets
of domestic life in late 19th and early 20th century Los Angeles. Preserved
in the Towers are traces of the important porcelain manufacturing and importing
companies of the time, and the site reflects trends in the decorative arts,
and generally the tastes of the time, the plates people ate from and the
bottles they drank from.
In speaking of correspondences between the Towers and its environs, Rodia was dryly ironic. In 1948, he told curious inspectors from the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department that, “I build the towers in honor of the highways of California.” Pointing to the tallest one, he said, “I build that one 101 feet high in honor of the 101 Freeway,” and then, indicating the others, “I build that one 99 feet tall, in honor of Highway 99, and I build that tower 66 feet tall, in honor of Route 66” (Goldstone 37).
Over time, the global and local imaginaries enveloping Rodia’s work took on a life of their own, as the enigmatic Rodia and his Towers project became objects of ever greater curiosity to his neighbors. In his research on the Towers, folklorist Daniel Ward spoke to people who had lived in the area when Rodia worked and was told things like: “the man who built the Watts Towers was a spy for the Japanese,” and “Tokyo Rose lived there and those were the broadcast towers for her programs.” The exotic, oriental-looking structure was also thought to hide a fortune, which brought children around smashing tiles and shells on the structures in Rodia’s absence in hopes of finding secreted riches. Still other locals believed that Rodia buried his wife underneath it (Posen and Franklin, 153). Evoking these global and local imaginaries as one looks at the structures, the Towers are both an actual, intransigent material work and a virtual, intricate narrative network.
The singularity of the Watts Towers is brought home when, in writing or speaking about it, one must simply describe it or designate what it actually is. The Towers have in fact been defined and classified in a number of ways. Bud and Arloa Paquin Goldstone, in their loving tribute history to the Towers, refer to it the first time simply is “a collection of seventeen sculptures” (11). When treated as architecture, the Towers typically are cited as an example of “Urban Vernacular.” In the more avant-garde art-critical vein, William Seitz and others have marked the Towers as the genesis of California Assemblage, a movement that subsequently included George Herms, Betty Saar, John Outterbridge and Ed Kienholz (Goldstones 19). Roger Cardinal includes the Watts Towers in his influential 1972 study of Outsider Art, Outsider Art being “creations by untrained artists whose work is more self-enclosed, obsessive, or simply idiosyncratic” than fine art or folk traditions (Russell, 17). In more general terms, the Watts Towers constitute what Roger Manley and Mark Sloan call a “self-made world,” in their study of “folk art environments” (Manley and Sloan, 1997). Posen and Ward, while wary of lumping the Towers into an all-encompassing “folk art” category, have examined the specific ways that Rodia’s work does in fact function in a certain tradition, while bringing innovations of his own.
Clearly, the way in which one classifies the site reflects the interests one brings to it, as much as it touches on the site itself. One approach very resonant with some aspects of my enduring interest in the Watts Towers is found in John Beardsley’s book, Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists. Beardsley’s study of sites including Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Georgia, the Ave Maria Grotto in Alabama, the Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, and many others, celebrates what he calls the “’idiosyncratic genius, tenacious faith, and unalienated labor’” they represent (Beardsley 7). Beardsley thinks of these sites as gardens in the sense that Maynard Mack defined Alexander Pope’s famous garden at Twickenham: as “literally and figuratively, a place to stand, an angle of vision … a rallying point for his personal values and a focus for his conception of himself” (8). These gardens are “revelations” in both the sense of “something revealed and the act of revealing”; Beardsley reads visionary environments as “a form of rhetorical speech” that embody the creator’s deeply held convictions (9). Beardsley sees the Watts Towers as Rodia’s “quest for the liberation of the spirit,” on both religious and secular levels (168).
On the religious level, the site does reflect spiritual concerns in many
ways. Rodia used a fountain as a baptismal fount, and he apparently
preached at tent revivals on the subject of “True Freedom: Freedom of Spirit
and Soul.” The unmistakable similarities between the Rodia’s work and
the structures in the Gigli celebration indicate some connection to Catholicism.
Although Rodia’s relatives characterize him as having been decidedly anti-Catholic,
one’s resistance to Catholicism is part of one’s Catholicism, as I know from
personal experience and years of teaching at LMU. Incidentally, many
people have compared the Towers to Gaudi’s church of La Sagrada Familia in
Barcelona. On one occasion, Rodia was presented with pictures of Gaudi’s
work. He looked at them for a while and asked, “’Did he have helpers?’”
Then he crowed, “’Me, I did it myself!’” (Goldstone 60).
On a more secular level, I agree with Beardsley’s contention that, for Rodia, the Watts Towers were “the ship on which he sailed in his dreams” (169). It is as if Rodia was creating a mythic environment for himself, an elaborate home peopled by the American and Italian heroes he often alluded to, including Columbus, Vespucci, Marconi, Buffalo Bill and others. The site’s ships and voyaging motifs thus invoke the myth of America (and California in particular) for immigrants—a sort of homage to the American Dream.
On the other hand though, the site could also be seen as a flight from this myth, one which he must have felt had betrayed him. His life in America consisted in harsh working conditions, the deaths of his brother and baby girl, and his own self-destructive descent into drinking and divorce. The Watts Towers thus has the qualities of a work of recovery and redemption—the recovery of lost dreams and the redemption of personal loss. Seen in this light, Rodia’s working methods and material practices take on rather rich, symbolic meanings. There is a kind of magical metamorphosis at play in Rodia’s labors, when one contemplates the careful arrangements of the tens of thousands of pieces of debris at the site. In collecting the cast-off, forgotten fragments of the objects from daily lives, and shaping them into dazzling mosaics, Rodia essentially transformed filth into lucre. In giving the unvalued, abandoned material elements of his environment a beautiful home, he implicitly created a prized place for the marginal human elements in his community. Perhaps this dimension of the site explains why, during the Watts Uprising of 1965, people protected the towers from fire and looting.
If the Watts Towers compensated for and redeemed much of the loss that Rodia felt, then in a sense they represent a certain kind of wish-fulfillment. And if, in this capacity, they resemble dreams, they are also very like dreams in their mode of composition. Just as dreams are not coherent, clearly directed narratives, Rodia’s work unfolded in a series of local gestures, without any evidence of an overarching plan. And, like dreams, Rodia’s structures are collections of the leftover debris of forgotten or repressed parts of daily life. In fact, Freud writes of dreams in terms that actually connect up with Rodia’s work in surprisingly literal, not to say uncanny, ways:
In general one must avoid seeking to explain one part of the manifest dream by another, as though the dream had been coherently conceived and was a logically arranged narrative. On the contrary, it is as a rule like a piece of breccia, composed of various fragments of rock held together by a binding medium, so that the designs that appear on it do not belong to the original rock embedded in it. (Freud 181-82)
Here, Freud remarks on the disparity between the materials being held together in the dream and the designs that appear on its surface. The same certainly applies to the Watts Towers, where shards held together in mortar form up into endlessly variegated patterns.
We are coming to a view of the Watts Towers as a monumental construction with a beautifully arrayed surface, whose depths are composed of waste materials. Essentially, we arrive at a view of the Watts Towers as a kind of crypt. This idea crops up in the rumors that Rodia had buried his wife there. As a means and place of redeeming lost materials, the site also seems like a work of mourning and penance. Perhaps the labor was cathartic; Rodia could finally mourn his lost daughter and dead brother; could let himself work through the regret of broken marriages. The ubiquitous presence of heart motifs certainly expresses an overwhelming feeling of love, a feeling that grows on one over time spent at the site. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint—actually, a popular misreading of Freud—Rodia’s labors involved a process of sublimation: transforming churning, conflicted, somewhat sexualized energies into aesthetic form. Rodia’s work neatly fits the original roots of the term sublimation: in alchemy, sublimation meant the action of heating a substance until it vaporized and then cooling it until it solidified again, yielding a more pure, rarefied product. Literally, Rodia heated materials to get new effects from them, in an oven with a chimney he built on the site, complete with pantry-like shelves on which to store and cool materials. More figuratively, he moved between solid and liquid forms of matter to transform materials into more rarefied versions of themselves.
In reading the Watts Towers, I have been tapping the alchemical potentialities of metaphor, moving from spirit and myth to dream and crypt. Now let me effect one more little linguistic shift, from the crypt to the cryptic, from crypt to encryption. The association of crypt and cryptic is more than superficially verbal—think of Poe’s tales, where so often a secret language or cipher is directly connected to a tomb. For instance, in “The Gold-Bug,” the protagonist Legrand cracks a cipher that leads to a buried treasure where skeletons are also found. Or, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” the protagonist Montresor leads his antagonist Fortunato to an empty space where the treasured sherry should be, but which instead becomes Fortunato’s tomb. Montresor manipulates his enemy through a series of puns, words whose cryptic or hidden meanings connect the sherry to a tomb: the catacombs through which they walk are both wine cellar and burial ground; opening a bottle of wine, Montresor “breaks the neck off a de Grave.”
Considered as the construction of a crypt and a labor of mourning and love, Rodia’s work unfolds according to a complex double-movement. On the one hand, he is making a tomb to hold those he has lost. Thus the towers, the ship, and the gazebo are all containers, external hulls that create a space to hold something. Structures in the shape of bowls and fountains are inversely constructed containers; one often sees both kinds of containters in single views. On the other hand, he is engaged in mourning, a process that brings out or up to the surface the lost person or object, which would otherwise remain incorporated in the person and hold them in a state of melancolia (to use Freud’s terms). The crypt, as it is built, is simultaneously a writing-pad on which the signs of mourning and other private emotions are expressed.
These two processes coalesce in a construction where the outer container and inner contents are all distributed on a single surface—rather than an outside and an inside, the towers are all skin, a kind of permeable membrane that takes in new elements (fragments, shards, etc) by reconfiguring its external envelope. Or, expressing the same affective idea in different terms, it is as if, in hauling the broken pieces of life up a ladder to build towers, Rodia was reversing the descent into the earth he experienced in the coal mines, where his brother died.
But, one might well ask, what justifies this idea of looking at the Watts Towers as a crypt covered in encrypted signs? Here, I must admit to expressing a highly subjective view that has emerged only with many visits to the site; and yet, each visit only affirms this sense of Rodia’s work in new ways. Whenever I am there, I have the sense that there are innumerable minute treasures and messages waiting to be found, funny little marks he left for us to see and read. Unable to read and write, Rodia invites us to look for enigmatic marks that come in numerical and geometric patterns. For instance, several sets of materials in fours may be found distributed throughout the site. Rodia also engaged in much more explicitly in the simple act of signing his work over and over, in various ways. His initials, made in mosaic form, are to be found in many places. He also put his name and the address of Nuestra Pueblo on the central tower, and on the mail slots he made. In fact, Rodia made a slot on each side of the door, one for the right-handed mailman and one for the left-handed one. Once one looks for his signature, one finds it in more cryptic, almost hieroglyphic forms. Of course, Rodia’s signature is enfolded in his doing—there is not a signature outside the text or at its borders, but embedded in its surface. Thus there are the many panels in the outer walls where he impressed his tools into the cement, creating a distinctly hieroglyphic-feeling set of de-signs, a signature in the hand of his hand tools that is both visual and linguistic symbol. Gas fitter’s pliers pressed into cement leave an impression that could easily be arabic lettering, or a creature of the imagination walking about looking for food.
On a further, more elusive level, one begins to feel palpably enveloped in
an overwhelming amount of
microscopic semiotic events. You feel the material presence of something
that signs itself—that is, the Towers are both physical fact and inscription.
There are the carefully secreted, ever-delightful surprises to be found: the
single bumblebee on a tile on the gazebo wall; the rabbit in the cactus garden,
visible only through one narrow gap. Then, there are the more
Up to this point, the presentation has moved from a biographical account of Simon Rodia to a historical overview of the Watts Towers, and then moved into more interpretive territory. In a sense, I have been thinking of the site as a material embodiment of psychological and spiritual forces, and, likewise, I have been trying to ground these speculations and reflections in the building methods Rodia employed. On the whole, I have treated the site in affective terms, working backwards, in a way, from the feelings that the place evokes for me to the different sources from which such feelings might have arisen. Now, I will shift to a much more cognitive, conceptual approach to the Watts Towers, and ask how they function in a context shaped by the nexus of postmodernist architecture and contemporary theory.
Rodia in the Context of Postmodern Architecture and Contemporary Theory
In this final section, I demonstrate certain ways in which Rodia’s Watts Towers may be compared to postmodernist architecture, particularly the movement now termed Folding Architecture. The comparisons I draw are both material and conceptual. On a material level, the defining characteristics of Folding Architecture read like descriptions of the Watts Towers, though in ways rather unintended by its theorists. On a conceptual level, I will show how the notions of space and time explored in the work of Folding Architects may be adduced from the Watts Towers. Or, put differently, I argue that in visiting the Watts Towers, one’s perceptual experiences induce one to reflect in a more conceptual fashion, and that when one does so, the ideas of space and time are consistent with those bandied about in the flashy terminology of contemporary architecture. Or, to put it one more way, Folding Architecture tries to implement concepts of space and time into buildings, while Rodia’s structures embody and communicate similar spatial and temporal concepts.
Before getting into Folding Architecture though, let me briefly encapsulate the interplay between perceptual experience and conceptual reflection that I feel at work when I visit the Watts Towers. On a perceptual level, the sheer profusion of detail gives the site an almost active physical presence. The structures saturate the eye with colors and textures and lines and patterns, so that the roving eye takes in more than the still mind can process. One is immersed in an aleatory, combinatoric world of elements in constant reconfiguration. This perception overload allows for a play on the conceptual level—as if, because they never crystallize as a single perceived entity, distinctly seen and captured by the eye, they continually take on different conceptual shapes and stimulate different lines of thought. Percept and concept, sight and insight, become indiscernible, to the point that the Towers train one to see with the mind and think through the eye.
Folding Architecture emerged in the early 1990’s, largely through the theoretical writings of Greg Lynn and Bernhard Cache. In postmodernism, Folding Architecture followed on the heels of Deconstructionist Architecture, and marked a shift in theoretical orientation. Whereas deconstructionist architects such as Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman drew on the work of Jacques Derrida, folding architects take their theoretical cues from Derrida’s contemporary Gilles Deleuze. Deconstructive architecture sought to disrupt traditional architectural frames, imposing conceptual, formal designs that impede the habits of habitus, how the body and perception mold themselves to space. Folding Architecture follows the spirit of Deleuze’s thought, which emphasizes heterogeneity and differences in spatial textures, while also deriving a sense of the consistency that permeates a patchwork space. Thus, as Greg Lynn notes, whereas Deconstructionist Architecture operates with “a logic of conflict and contradiction,” Folding Architecture foregrounds “a more fluid logic of connectivity” (8). Rather than accentuating contrasts and contradictions, folding plays across differences. It favors linkage over aporia. Lynn posits that, “If there is a single effect produced in architecture by folding, it will be the ability to integrate unrelated elements within a new continuous mixture” (8). Whereas Deconstructionist work breaks with traditional frames by imposing skewed ones, Folding work renders the frame fluid and permeable. Folding Architecture is marked by, in Michael Speaks’ words, “the development of more pliant, complex, and heterogeneous forms of architectural practice—with architectural practice supple enough to be formed by what is outside or external to them, yet resilient enough to retain their coherence as architecture” (xvi). The suppleness of Folding Architecture yields structures without a center, where one moves through a space of constantly morphing contours. This is a space in which, in Speaks’s words, “the whole is not given but always open to variation, as new things are added or new relations made, creating new continuities out of such intervals or disparities” (Speaks, ix). This kind of space is inherently dynamic; it is a space infused with and unfolding in time. As Lynn puts it, the formal explorations of Folding Architecture induce a “temporal modulation that implies as much the beginnings of a continuous variation of matter as a continuous development of form” (AF, 19)
To sum up, then, Folding Architecture envisions work that fluidly
integrates disparate materials within structures without a center, where
supple frames constantly shift as outside elements reconfigure interior forms.
Folding works comprise open-ended wholes, wholes that consistently vary as
one moves through them, and this movement itself embodies a kind of rhythmic,
These definitions of folding architecture read like material, even literal descriptions of the Watts Towers. It would be an understatement to say that the Watts Towers are shaped by outside elements; the whole site is composed of locally gathered materials molded into a work with a consistent texture. (Indeed, the hands-on, inventive and pragmatic use of local materials might lead one to see the Watts Towers as a kind of urban version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice of Organic Architecture.) There is no central point in Rodia’s work, and it comprises a whole that looks and feels different at every step of one’s movement through the site. Rodia’s constructive process enacts the ideals of Folding Architecture, in that it constantly integrated disparate, floating fragments from the outside into constantly changing, gradually emerging architectural structures.
Let us make a first pass at seeing the Watts Towers in terms of Folding Architecture from the inside-out, as it were, working from the level of detail. If we think on local or micro-scales, we quickly find that the most striking quality of the Towers is variation. Everywhere you look, you find some amazing integration of, repeating Lynn’s phrasing, “unrelated elements within a new continuous mixture” (Lynn, 8). In this image you find industrial slag, crockery, glass, tile, and cement colored with Rodia’s homemade vegetable dye. He has imprinted the cement with a radiator grill, plates, and baking molds. There is a stunning range of materials, surfaces, and colors here. The image also shows how the Towers change so much depending on what slice or segment of them you choose to frame and examine—they truly constitute a “whole” that undergoes qualitative “variation” as the parts are recombined in different ways. The interplay of light and shadow caught at that moment in the shot also underscores the specificity of each impression the Towers give off, and how they change as perception lingers over them.
This image shows another amalgamation of disparate materials employed by
Rodia. Here there is less pretense of pattern or the soothing effects of
symmetry. Instead, interesting juxtapositions open up among the different
fragments embedded in a rounded cement surface. What appears to be
igneous rock is actually the waste metal from the blast furnaces of steel
mills. This ‘waste’ was used for ballast in empty freight cars and then dumped
along the tracks before the empty cars were loaded with goods and materials.
Heavy, harsh hunks of industrial slag and insulators (cylindrical, grooved
chunks of glass around which power lines were wound atop telephone poles)
resemble volcanic islands of cooled lava and sheared off shards of giant crystals.
The solidity of rock, glass and cement are offset by the attenuated textures
and lines traced out by tendrils shooting out from this base in all directions.
Now let us pull back, shifting the scale of our engagement with the Towers from parts to patterns: what emerges when we look at the Watts Towers from the outside-in? This proves difficult to get a handle on, as the texture of Rodia’s work as a whole is extraordinarily complex. Along certain sight-lines, both outlines and surfaces are sharply, irregularly jagged. Yet other views yield a smooth series of concentric rings, similarly tiled surfaces, curvilinear form hinted at through the sheen of patchwork colors. Networks of lines form webs as towers shoot upwards through them. There is a constant interplay between pattern and particularity, consolidation and dispersion. The Towers themselves swirl with forces moving both centripetally and centrifugally. The overall dynamic is more than a ‘fold’ created between inside and outside; it is a vortex or spin glass which alternately sucks things into a calm center or throws elements outwards and upwards.
Bernhard Cache’s theorizing of Folding Architecture emphasizes the interplay
between outside and inside. Cache defines architecture as the art of
making frames, and he terms Folding Architecture the art of creating “probabilistic
frames,” where every frame is undone from the inside by what he calls “intercalcated
elements.” From the standpoint of framing, the Watts Towers present
a singular case where the distinction between frame and interior becomes indiscernible.
The outer walls [image] delineate a boundary on the horizontal plane, but
their function as frame is negated because the walls are dwarfed by the scale
of the towers. The walls seem more like part of a skin that stretches
invisibly across the skeletal surfaces throughout the site. The relation
between external frame and internal content also breaks down when we recall
that the whole work forms a ship, with the three towers serving as masts.
The site’s triangular shape transform its walls into the ship’s prow and
hull, and the arch motifs along the walls represent the waves of the sea.
Thus Rodia constructs a frame from the inside, as it were, rather than the
This folding of outside and inside operates at every scale—for instance,
the decorative materials that make up the external surfaces of the structures
are embedded “in” cement; the materials are taken from things that served
as containers, such as bottles, boots and pitchers. The Towers literally sit
on the earth’s surface—rather than being towers plunged into the earth, they
form a skeletal set of arcs, circles, and vectors caught up in a dance. The
tallest structure, the ten-story West Tower, has a foundation that is only
18 inches deep. This is amazing, when one considers that building codes
dictate that the legal minimum depth for a ten-story structure is 24 feet.
The towers combine what sculptor Rick Oginz termed an incredible ‘density
of incident’ with a lacy lightness, a filigreed flightiness, a dazzling,
shifting kaleidoscope of pattern, color, light, shadow, and motion.
This slide gives some sense of the complexities and nuances in the Towers’
textures. There is a tremendous vertical surge in the two tower structures
in the background, offset or balanced by the horizontal movement opening
through the doorway. The towers differ in their thrust—the left one
pushes nearly straight up, while the rings around the right one give it a
sort of echoing feel of motion, as if one were watching ripples on a pool,
only instead of moving outwards on a surface, they were getting smaller and
moving upwards. The towers appear connected or bridged by the arch over
the doorway in the foreground; this illusory perspectival effect is made
real in the network of arms that do in fact suture together all the structures
visible here—towers, door, walls. This slide also captures several
features of the incredible play of and interplay between different forces
on the site. Tremendous tension ensues here between surface and hole;
light and shadow; gray solidity and multicolored fragments; weight, gravity
and mass versus flight, laciness and lightness; continuous lines and discrete
pieces; kaleidoscopic pattern and single flecks.
Postmodernist design practices work with the logic of Deleuze’s concept of a diagram. Deleuze defines a diagram not as a static template, but an abstract set of relationships—the diagram in Deleuze’s work is not a blueprint to be realized like an architectural plan, but a pregnant potentiality of something yet to come. Postmodernists implement this idea by using computers—they start with a simple algorithm or mathematical function, and iterate a single operation to generate a series of spatial structures. This process is how a fractal is drawn—each iteration of the function yields a set of points that comprise a shape. These iterations in turn embody the ‘foldings’ of space that give rise to a design concept of a building.
The Watts Towers presents an inverse case. All of the individual steps in Rodia’s work culminate in a set of structures, from which one must reconstruct an underlying function or geometrical concept. Rodia never made plans for the structure, but when you see drawings of them, they appear to be plans for a structure as much as a picture of something finished. The Towers themselves are like blueprints—they have a tremendous visual power, whereby you both look at them very hard, straining to catch details, watch the little activities he put into each fragment, every shard—and simultaneously, you look through them, or in looking at them, zooming in, you are also thrown through them, squeezed down to a dot and then expanding into a different scale.
What is the diagram the Towers projects of itself? Seen from a certain
perspective, the Towers are an intricate fractal produced by the enlacing
of different iterative operations. If you look up the row of structures from
the corner, the apex of the triangular lot, where Rodia began, you can see
the Towers evolving in height and complexity. The first Tower (mast of the
Ship of Marco Polo) has bulbous growths stacked one above the others; the
second (East Tower) starts out this way, but gets surrounded by rings that
rise to a peak twenty feet beyond the uppermost bulb. The Central Tower has
two sets of staggered rings thrusting upward with a distinctly increased
velocity and force—confident in his technique, Rodia now works with greater
density, both structurally and in terms of surface composition. The
long pipes slope towards the top of a straight vertical pole, converging at
the peak; this appears ‘natural’ to the eye because the poles meet at the
top, with an effect of vanishing point perspective.
The West Tower adds a procedure to the two concentric ring sets: a series
of wider rings envelopes the inner series, so there are now three layers
of wrapping around the inner spike. These rings are rounder, and their strength
enables a thinning of the interior rings, giving a further feeling of a filigreed,
meshy texture to this Tower.
It took me a long time to learn to see the Towers in terms of this
generative process. In turn, this perception then engenders a recursive
reflection: one feels that this pattern one has discerned may serve as a
kind of retroactively deduced architectural plan for them. The discrete Towers
then may be posed as a sequence of operations on a single virtual Tower concept.
The tremendous dynamical energy generated by the repetition-cum-variation
patterning that the installation gives off creates the sense of movement
and therefore time in the stable structures. This movement then builds
cumulatively into this iterative process discernible across the Towers, and
this iterative process, extracted conceptually from viewing the Towers as
points in a single orbit, constitutes the internal time of the location as
a whole. Rodia produces fractal architecture, but arrives there via
an experiential, bottom-up, hands-on, circumstance-driven process.
Rather than a strictly formal fractal geometry, made of precisely ‘self-similar’ forms, the Watts Towers take shape according to what Deleuze, borrowing from Husserl, call a “protogreometry” Such a protogeometry “addresses vague, in other words, vagabond or nomadic, morphological essences” (365). Distinct from given things, yet not ideal shapes. Neither inexact nor exact, “anexact yet rigorous (‘essentially and not accidentally inexact’)”.
It is precisely this “anexact yet rigorous” quality to the patterns and symmetries found all over the Towers that defines them. The Towers site induces you constantly to perceive lines, shapes, vectors, and implicit diagrammatics, to see both the myriad delight of detail right in front of you and to peer through, to blur the focus for a moment and get the gestalt. The key here is the constant folding of perception and concept into one another—each image produces a concept, each concept undergoes modification by the image. Cache distinguishes this suppleness of mind in these terms: “Take any surface. Generally, we describe its relief in terms of summits and crests, basins and valleys. But if we can manage to erase our coordinate axes, then we will only see inflections, or other intrinsic singularities that describe the surface precisely” (36). Once we sense images in terms of their qualitative uniqueness, rather than according to an external metric, Cache posits that “we accede to another regime of images that we will call primary ones” (36).
For Cache, the primary image is not an ur-image or the first stage in a series. Rather, primary precedes distinctions between inside and outside, before and after. Cache takes the Moebius strip as an example of how a primary image “allows us to see, if only for an instant, a universe with no top or bottom, right or left, inside or outside” (37).
In this vein, the site’s signature motif may be the rosette, a design Rodia imprinted all over both the inside and outside of the walls. The rosette may be read as a conceptual sign expressing the specific mode of perception induced by the Watts Towers. On an atomistic scale, the rosette reveals what Deleuze, writing about Leibniz, called the “alveolar” nature of the world. In this ontology, space and matter display “an infinitely porous, spongy, or cavernous texture without emptiness, caverns endlessly contained in other caverns” (F, 5). In the “protogeometry” of this fractal assemblage that “addresses vague, in other words, vagabond or nomadic, morphological essences” (ThPl, 365), every part functions as both whole and hole. As Cache puts it, the rosette demonstrates “that the texture of substance is the inclusion of envelopes that fold into one another, small circles into large ones.” The rosette thus shows that “we will certainly not acquire the soul or the body that we are at such pains to secure by better enclosing our subject zones; we must rather delve down into texture or go back up into envelopes by grafting ourselves onto the world that surrounds us and by opening this world within us” (EM, 124).
The Watts Towers both embody and induce this double dynamic, this movement of perception: a scrutiny narrowing down to elusive detail and a flight up concentric rings. It thus opens within us the world of what Deleuze calls “perception in the folds,” a swirl of “minute perceptions lacking an object, that is, hallucinatory mircoperceptions” (F, 86). This is a mode of perception both restless and restful: “It is a lapping of waves, a rumor, a fog, or a mass of dancing particles of dust…. It is as if the depths of every monad were made from an infinity of tiny folds endlessly furling and unfurling in every direction, so that the monad’s spontaneity resembles that of agitated sleepers who twist and turn on their mattresses” (F, 86).
Here, we return to the metaphors of dream and cryptography, wondering how to read the site’s myriad signs. The waking dreamer walking through the Watts Towers is immersed in a world composed of constant inflection folded into an elusive consistency. We are suddenly moving in a zone between percept and concept, and, in the terms of Deleuze’s reading of Leibniz, between body and soul. To navigate and read this zone, Deleuze writes, a “‘cryptographer’ is needed, someone who can at once account for nature and decipher the soul” (F, 3). The cryptographer must understand that in this paradoxical zone no direct communication between body and soul is possible; we pass from one to the other, continuously. In his book on Deleuze, Gregg Lambert points out that when there “can be no direct presentation, or transposition, of the perceptual,” then “perception must itself become a sign, and the sign must become a text that must be read, deciphered” (Lambert, 48).
The reason that Rodia’s project enacts this process of perception,
or that the site induces us to enact it, rests in the model of perception
at play in the folds. This is a cryptic perceptual mode where “perception
takes place in the design, and must be constructed, piece by piece, apartment
by apartment” (Lambert, 48). The Watts Towers invites us to read its
cryptic messages that are all on the surface, literally as well as figuratively.
But the material itself poses a mystery, the solution to which is apparently
hidden in plain sight—because the material presents itself in perception
an allegory of its own secret.
This presentation has moved through several passes at and through the Watts
Towers. Each perspective or approach stages a different version of Rodia’s
work. As a final way to locate the Watts Towers, I imagine mapping
it in the terms of Deleuze’s idea of architecture, derived from Leibniz’s
Baroque House. The Baroque House has a ground floor with several windows—these
are the senses, our windows onto the world. On the upper floor of the
Baroque House, there are no windows, only walls with intricately folded drapes.
The upper floor embodies the mind or soul, where perception is extended by
affect and reflection, in the folds of the brain. If we recast the
Baroque House in the image of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, it is as if Leibniz’s
house has been remodeled by Moebius, with a nod to Escher. There is
no longer a vector that differentiates a lower floor with windows of perception
and an upper floor with folds of soul. At the Watts Towers, one is
rather going up the down staircase, caught in an escalating experience where
perception and concept enter into a chase after one another; at the moment
they appear as one, they flip into the other. Deleuze’s Leibniz has
become entangled with Deleuze’s characterization of Kant’s epistemology,
where faculties are left “to evolve freely in order to form strange combinations
as sources of time; ‘arbitrary forms of possible intuitions’” (xii).
If the Watts Towers represents a fold of body and soul, then here percept
and concept enmesh, and images form strange combinations as sources of space;
aleatory forms of possible inflections. Space thus becomes saturated
with and restored to its immanent connection to time. For as stable, massive,
and enduring as they are, the Watts Towers are also supple, mobile, and endless.
There is no Watts Towers; there are only Watts Towers yet to come.
Beardsley, John. Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary
Artists. New York: