Monday, September 19, 2011


Most architectural writing deals with what you might call “legitimate” styles: mass-produced, popular and relatively buttoned-down stuff.  But some of the most fascinating architecture of the twentieth century came neither from architects nor builders, and can’t be fit any stylistic cubbyhole. 

Such works, sometimes classed as “naive” or “visionary” design, are the product of singular personalities refreshingly free of academic influences.  Here are a sampling: 

•    In 1921 Simon Rodia, an uneducated Italian immigrant laborer, began building the first of a group of towers around his house in Los Angeles’ Watts district.  Fashioned out of cement-covered steel bars and encrusted with fantastic arrays of shells, bottles, and bits of tile and glass, the tallest of the structures eventually soared nearly a hundred feet.  After laboring on the towers for thirty-three years Rodia, then 79, laid down his tools, deeded the property to his neighbor for nothing, and disappeared.  Of the now-famous Watts Towers he said simply,  “I had in mind to do something big and I did.”

•   In the mid-50s, “Grandma” Tressa Prisbrey found that her collection of 2000 pencils had outgrown her house trailer in Santa Susana, California.  So she began building a small structure to display them, using a material that was cheap and plentiful--discarded bottles.  Over the next twenty years, this humble beginning evolved into the Bottle Village, a 40-by-300 foot compound of 13 buildings and nine other structures, all built out of some one million bottles laid up in cement.  

Prisbrey, who liked to sport a floppy sun hat ringed with old television vacuum tubes, also made daily trips to the dump, where she collected bits of broken tile, old headlights, and a cavalcade of other discards.  These she lovingly inlaid into every square inch of paving between the structures, as well as into numerous free-form planters which she built on the site.  Prisbrey filled these planters with cactus, explaining:

“I don’t care much for cactus myself, but I don’t have a green thumb and if I forget to water the cactus they just grow anyhow. . .they remind me of myself.  They are independent, prickly, and ask nothing from anybody.”

•  And of course, no account of wacky architecture would be complete without mention of Sara Winchester, diminutive heiress to the Winchester arms fortune. Supposedly plagued by the spirits of the untold men who had died at the business end of Winchester rifles, Sara consulted a fortune teller and learned that as long as she kept adding onto her modest San Jose farmhouse, she would not only escape their wrath, but would never die to boot.  

Psychics having a good deal more credibility in the late-19th century, she immediately embarked on the remodel to end all remodels--a project that would last several decades and ultimately yield a spectacularly rambling Victorian/Edwardian house with 160 rooms. Among its idiosyncrasies:  A seance room, a bell tower for summoning the spirits, and the repeated use of design motifs with 13 elements.  Tourguide puffery aside, the Winchester House remains a fine place to view the transition of architectural style from the late-nineteenth to the twentieth century-- a wacky enough subject in itself.

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