Towering Achievements

Why did Simon Rodia build the beautiful Watts Towers and then give them away?

Simon Rodia was a regular guy in a lot of ways: He immigrated to the United States from Italy, got a job, bought a house (that was normal back in the 1920s), and settled into a modest multiracial neighborhood (also not unusual back then) on the outskirts of Los Angeles. But at some point he became exceptional. People have called him everything from a kook to a genius, but one thing's for sure -- he had grand dreams. As he once said, "I had in mind to do something big, and I did it."

In Rodia's mind was folk art of the first order, 17 conical structures made of rebar, concrete, glass chips, and broken dishes now known as the Watts Towers. The two tallest are nearly a hundred feet high, and the whole structure is surrounded by walls encrusted with mirror shards, buttons, bottle caps, and other castoff materials. Today the towers are internationally revered, often compared to the work of architect Antonio Gaudí. Although local public opinion of the site has changed dramatically through the years -- people sometimes showed their distaste with graffiti -- during the infamous Watts Riots that damaged much of the area in the mid-1960s the towers remained untouched.

In spite of all this veneration, Rodia finished the work, signed the property over to a neighbor, and then split, making clear he didn't care what happened to it. The artist spent the rest of his life with his family in a small Bay Area town.

Reaching for the Sky: Rodia's Watts 
Reaching for the Sky: Rodia's Watts Towers.


As part of "As They Saw It," an exhibition of socially conscious work, the screening begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20

Admission is $50 for individuals, $75 for couples



Meridian Gallery, 545 Sutter (at Powell), S.F.

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Nagging questions remain about Rodia. Why build? Why persist? Why leave? I Build the Tower is a documentary on his life and work that might allow fans some insight. Producers Edward Landler and Brad Byer are present to discuss their just-finished film at Thursday night's fund-raiser for Tower's final production costs. See the towers up close, and get a handle on a regular guy who did something really, really big.

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