Sam Rodia arrived in America when he was 15 in 1894. We know very little about his youth in Italy, except that he came from a family of small landowners. He moved to Los Angeles in 1921 and bought a lot in the Watts district, a real run-down area. It was in a small, dead end street, next to a couple of private residences, with a railroad at the back. Rodia was 42 when he moved in and for the next 34 years he dedicated all his spare time to building his towers. He never told anyone his exact motivation. The only thing we know for sure is that throughout his life he constantly said "I'm gonna do something, I'm gonna do something". It was his mantra. As a labourer, who worked on building sites, he made an unlikely artist. He was poor, with no benefactor and all the money he earned was spent on Portland Cement, sand for the mortar mix and steel reinforcements, with just enough left over to buy food. By the time the towers were finished in 1955 Rodia had built 17 sculptures, three tall spires, the largest nearly 100 feet, two walls, a gazebo, several smaller towers, a ship and a patio. He called it Nuestro Pueblo, or Our Town, but it became known as Watts Tower. In many ways it is an unique structure, the largest ever built by one man. The entire construction was made without bolts, rivets or welds because he had no drill to make holes in steel and no welding equipment to join the steel parts together. He didn't have any 100 foot scaffolding or any help with the construction work. But he somehow managed to make do. The sculpture itself was made of steel which was wrapped in wire mesh with cement and mortar layered on top. This was covered with 40,000 ornaments, including pottery, glazed tiles, blue and green bottles, sea shells and rocks, which he salvaged from aro und the neighbourhood. He was definitely obsessed by his work. All his spare time went into designing the structure and then building it. Often he worked all night and then went to his day job in the morning, without any sleep. Sometimes he didn't stop to eat for several days.

This inevitably took a toll on his personal life. He had three wives but none of the relationships worked out because his dream eclipsed all other issues. But there again he was happiest when he was building. Neighbours often heard him singing the Italian classics from high up in the spires. The structure has now been recognised as a work of the art, and has been classified as folk art assemblage. But in reality it is unlike anything else. Rodia himself never cared a darn about official recognition for his work, even though it is now a national monument. But he did want people to see it and that's why he bought the property next to the rail road. In 1959 it was condemned as dangerous. That's when I got involved. A friend called and asked me to determine whether it was a danger. As an aeronautical engineer I soon found that the construction was completely safe. In fact his building methods were exceptionally advanced, which is extraordinary when you con sider the limited equipment he was working with. By the time Rodia died in 1965 the sculpture's future was safeguarded. Many local residents, who were proud to live so near to Watts Towers, campaigned to raise funds for its restoration. Rodia did fulfil his dream. He spent his life trying to express himself and this remains with us today. But because of his obsessional approach to his work his personal life remained empty. 'The Los Angeles Watts Towers', by Bud Goldstone and Arola Paquin Goldstone is published by Thames and Hudson, price pounds 14.95

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