A Towering Test for Real-World Solutions
By Michael Stone
Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM
Italian immigrant Simon (Sabato) Rodia's towers in the Watts region of Los Angeles are one of the city's most treasured landmarks. Rodia spent 33 years building the collection of 17 interconnected sculptural structures that transformed his plot of land into an example of vernacular architecture and Italian-American outsider art, now an L.A. icon. Known as Nuestro Pueblo ("Our Town"), the towers are both a national and California historic landmark, and a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument.
But all is not well there. Time, weather, traffic and other factors constantly attack the structural health of the monument, causing deterioration to reappear after repairs are made. Time to call in a team of UCLA engineers. Over the past year, the engineers and their students have partnered with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to study the problem. They have collected and analyzed data, made scientific measurements of movement and found that thermal loading — temperature elevations caused by the sun — creates movement, which affects construction materials originally used as well as those applied later for repair.
The LACMA conservators are incorporating the UCLA team's findings into their repair methodologies, while the UCLA team has moved on to the gazebo, where they are using laser scans to create a structural model to be used with numerical simulations to analyze problem areas and contribute to longer-term preservation.
"My colleague Robert Nigbor and I are pleased to be working on this project," says Ertugrul Taciroglu, professor of civil and environmental engineering. "It allows us to engage students in a real-world problem where they can stretch their analytic skills, provide recommendations and interact with conservation scientists."
Watts Towers' preservation was one of the first projects featured a few months ago on the UCLA Spark crowdfunding site, where it raised $3,000 from a wide demographic of supporters, including alumni, staff, faculty and one corporate donor.
Meanwhile, dozens of UCLA volunteers have also met at the site to help beautify the expanding garden around the property. Organized by the UCLA Volunteer Center and the Alumni Scholars Club, they have prepared the ground for the planting of new trees, flowers and shrubs.
And to shed light on a number of aspects of the towers, a new collection of essays titled Sabato Rodia's Towers in Watts: Art, Migrations, Development presents rich perspectives from academics, writers, artists, city administrators and community organizers. The book, edited by UCLA alumna Luisa Del Giudice Ph.D. '87, also includes interviews with Rodia by noted journalists, along with other materials culled from the UCLA Library's Special Collections.
Two conferences and festivals — one at the University of Genova, Italy, in 2009, and the other at UCLA in 2010 — inspired the book, which was sponsored by the UCLA International Institute, UCLA Department of Italian, several museums, civic organizations and local churches, as well as the Watts Towers Arts Center, Watts Labor Community Action Committee and Friends of the Watts Towers.
"I wanted to help create common ground around the towers so we could . . . create a sense of mutual respect and action pointing in the same direction. An entire new generation needs to hear this story," says Del Giudice. She and several colleagues will offer their perspectives on Rodia and his impact on October 15 at the Young Research Library.
For more information, call the Istituto Italiano di Cultura at (310) 443-3250.