a feature-length documentary film
  about Simon Rodia and the Watts
    Towers of South Central Los Angeles

by Edward Landler and Brad Byer

One of the 20 Best Documentaries about Los Angeles
See Dan Schindel on http://nonfics.com/20-best-documentaries-los-angeles/

“Employing a collage of archival materials and extensive audio interviews with the voluble Rodia, recollections from his nieces and nephews, comments from admirers (most notably Buckminster Fuller, a kindred idiosyncratic soul), and loving close-ups of the towers, ‘I Build the Tower’ is a fascinating portrait of a driven man, as well as an appreciation of the Watts Towers (a centerpiece of community pride and a national landmark)...  Recommended...”
 – F. Swietek, Video Librarian

Written, Directed and Produced by
Edward Landler and Brad Byer

“I Build the Tower” is the true story of the life and work of Sam Rodia, the Italian immigrant who built the world-famous Watts Towers on a residential lot in South Central Los Angeles.  Rodia’s Watts Towers, designated as a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior in 1990, are now a component site of the California State Parks, managed by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.

“Why I build it?  I can’t tell you.  Why a man make the pants?  Why a man make the shoes?” 
  --  Sam Rodia

Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park
Sam Rodia Martinez California 1960s Italian Immigration History

Rodia at home in
Martinez, California, 1960

Barely five feet tall, the uneducated Rodia worked from the 1920’s to the 1950’s without helpers or scaffolding to build unique and majestic spires of reinforced concrete rising to a hundred feet, decorated with a mosaic of tile, seashells, pottery, ceramics, rocks and glass – even broken 7-Up and Milk of Magnesia bottles.  Transcending the category of “outsider” or “folk” art, Rodia’s Watts Towers have come to be recognized as an artistic and engineering masterpiece world-wide.

In 1959, the Building and Safety Department of Los Angeles issued a job order to “demolish and remove the dangerous towers” and attempted to pull them down with a crane.  Even within Rodia’s own family, the controversy raged – was Uncle Sam a great artist or a bum? 
Rodia Watts Towers Los Angeles 1940s Art History Architecture

Rodia on his towers, late 1940's

But, with no conscious intent to do so, Sam and his towers triumphed over bureaucracy and achieved lasting recognition in the history of modern art and architecture.  Their stature was further enhanced as a symbol of freedom for the community in which they stand when the 1965 Watts Uprising/Riots left the towers untouched.

“As time goes on, they begin to reveal to humanity the soul of the artist,” eminent futurist, engineer and structuralist R. Buckminster Fuller noted in his last interview, filmed exclusively for this project.  For Fuller, the Watts Towers embody the universal structural principles found in nature and demonstrate the power of individual initiative to effect change in the world.

Rodia great-nephew Brad Byer’s access to family members and materials and Edward Landler’s long association with the Watts community have provided them with a wealth of archival film footage and interviews to go along with their footage of Naples and the southern Italian region of Campania where Rodia was born, of the San Francisco Bay area where Rodia lived before and after his years in Los Angeles, and, of course, of Los Angeles itself and the Watts Towers.

The film also relies on audio interviews of Rodia from the early 1960’s to chronicle his redemption from alcoholism and despair to a fierce
Sam Rodia Martinez California 1960s Italian Immigration

Rodia walking in Martinez, 1961

determination to build “something big.”  Rodia’s own words offer the shrewd and haunting perspective of an “Old World” peasant living in but never assimilating into modern industrial America.

A bonus DVD features the complete 40-minute interview with R. Buckminster Fuller, excerpts of which appear in “I Build the Tower”.  In this interview, filmed three months before his death in July, 1983, Mr. Fuller provides an analysis of Rodia’s artistic and engineering genius and its significance in art history and the world. 

Also participating in the film are Phil Proctor of the Firesign Theatre, musician Johnny Otis, vocalist Dwight Trible and artist John Outterbridge.

“I Build the Tower” qualified for Oscar consideration at the Westside Pavilion’s Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles and has been showcased at the American Cinematheque
Watts Towers Rodia Mosaic Nuestro Pueblo Los Angeles Art Architecture

Outer wall panel mosaic

at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and at the Vancouver International Film Centre’s Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia.  In 2011, it was screened as part of the Los Angeles city-wide “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980” exhibition. 

Its numerous film festival screenings include:
    * Documentary Fortnight, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
    * The Environmental Film Festival, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
    * The Pan-African Film Festival, Los Angeles
    * The Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival
    * International Festival for Films on Art in Montreal
    * Leeds International Film Festival, England
    * Festival di Palazzo Venezia, Rome, and Biografilm Festival, Bologna, Italy

“I Build the Tower” was the opening presentation of “Art and Migration:  Sabato Rodia and the Watts Towers of Los Angeles”, an international conference at the University of Genoa, Italy, in April, 2009, co-sponsored by U.C.L.A.’s International Institute.  In October, 2010, it was also highlighted when the second phase of this conference took place at U.C.L.A. as “The Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative: Art/Migrations/Development”. 
Keep checking this website for news of upcoming screenings.

“I Build the Tower” was also cited by Steve Rosen on IndieWire as one of the best five undistributed films of 2006.

Click here to purchase the DVD now.

See Clips from the Film on IMDb


“To see the beauty of nature and understand the principles.  That’s what Sam, Simon Rodia did... Sam will rank not just in our century, but rank with the sculptors of all history.”

   -- R. Buckminster Fuller

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