PRINT August 1962

Fantastic Architecture

THERE HAVE BEEN AT all times and in all countries builders who saved their souls from drowning in the ocean of conformity by living a life of their own on the Island of Fantasy. Most of them were lone men, some highly trained professional architects, some self-taught craftsmen only. The ideas of the professionals who knew how to draw frequently remained utopic plans on papers; but the untrained men, such as Postman Cheval and Sam Rodia had no means of premeditating on paper. They had no other way of expressing themselves than to set forth with their own hands what their imaginations dictated to them. “It is all in my head” answered Sam Rodia, when asked for his blueprints.


On the southeastern outskirts of the City of Los Angeles, diametrically opposed in any respect to the glamour of the city of Hollywood, in a drab neighborhood without glamor, one would expect anything else but a colorful garden with three giant towers. Soaring to the height of 96 feet in the midst of Mexican and colored folks who struggle hard for the necessities of life, Sam Rodia’s towers stand as a purposeless tribute to beauty. They are a phenomenon both of construction and of human energy. The Italian craftsman Simon, or Sam, Rodia, a tile setter, built this greatest structure ever made by one man, single handed, using simple tools without the use of machines. He impressed his tools into the concrete of his construction. He could not afford a helper, he said, moreover he would not have been able to tell him what to do. Once Sam had conceived the idea of “doing something big” he remained obsessed by it for 30 years. James Johnson Sweeney called Sam a born construction genius. Sam bent his iron rods in the most primitive way, without measuring instruments, under a railroad track. His innate feeling for equilibrium made the Towers rise straight and firm. However, the officials of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department stated “the Towers are built of scrap, Seven-up bottles and sea shells.” They ignored the sound construction and the fact that the colorful mosaic was also protection for the reinforced concrete. A 10,000 pound load test had to be applied to the highest Tower. It stood firm and proud during this rigorous test and thus escaped demolition.

Sam was an inventive artist. Each tower has its own form and rhythm. One has rings bulking in measured proportion, while the inner forms are straight and angular. Another tower rises straight, but through the open transparent structure one can see the round forms of the inner structure. There are, buttresses, pavilions, labyrinths and fountains and a passage-way roofed with broken mirrors. Seven-Up bottles make good finials; broken, they make patterns of odd forms with highlights on their curvatures; pulverized they cover stalagmites near the fountain like wet moss in a virgin forest. Jules Langsner, who was one of the first to write about the Towers, told me a human interest story: One Sunday he met Sam, washed and scrubbed clean, wearing a sleeveless shirt. The brown arms shimmered with splinters of pulverized glass which had settled deep in his leather-hard skin. Sam had become a part of his mosaic.

In spite of his devotion to the Towers Sam Rodia abandoned them at the age of 75, feeling his strength declining. The Towers were neglected, his house burnt down by vandals. After the Building and Safety authorities condemned the Towers, two courageous artists, William Cartwright and Nicholas King, acquired them in order to save them. They were assisted by other artists and intellectuals who formed the “Committee for Sam Rodia’s Towers in Watts.” The Towers now belong to the Committee.

It has taken over the responsibility of maintaining them and making the grounds a cultural center for the community. The circle of friends, even abroad, is growing with the fame of the towers. Sam Rodia, now living as a recluse in Northern California, and who had refused to take any interest in the Towers, is starting to enjoy the recognition of the “big thing” he accomplished.


A mail carrier used to pace patiently thirty kilometers a day through the countryside. He liked to pick up pebbles of odd shapes from the tuff which he found at the roadside. They had forms, as bizarre as never a man could invent, resembling animals or gruesome caricatured faces. These whitish stones reminded him of a dream: “I built in my dream a castle, a palatial grotto.” At the age of thirty he began to make his dream reality. He taught himself masonry. Nature gave him cornices, figures of giants, phallic symbols, Buddhas and Pharaohs. He improved on nature’s sculpture by adding weird forms upon weird forms. It took him 30 years to build and decorate the “Grotto,” the “Cascade,” the “Grave of the Druid,” and the “Pharaonic Grave.” Then he built his own tomb in the village churchyard. He tried to paraphrase historical styles according to his rather vague concepts.

Although one may be reminded of exuberant Indian Baroque sculpture, the result was Postman Cheval’s own style. He left no inch of space empty. A decorative overall pattern of sculpture overgrows the long facade like parasitic plant life. Various large columns and giant figures give points of rest to the eye in the maze of small forms.

Cheval incised verses and captions at various places of the Grotto. Proudly he incised his work calendar:

10,000 days, 93,000 hours. 33 years.”

“Plus opiniatre que moi se mette a l’oeuvre.”

“He who is more obstinate a man than I (may) go to work.”

BRUNO TAUT (1880–1938)

“Hail to transparent, the clear, the pure! Hail to the crystal! Higher and higher shall rise the floating form, the graceful, the sparkling, the flashing, the light! Hail to building eternal!”

Bruno Taut, City Architect of Magdeburg, Germany, an official, a practical builder, wrote these dithyrambic words after World War I, in a defeated country. In the midst of a chaotic revolution and economic disaster, his architectural fantasy envisaged ideal buildings in a new and better world to come: dream architecture, domes of crystal to top mountain tops and houses with no other purpose than to be beautiful and to uplift the soul of the visitor. He designed an ideal city, with a star-shaped house of Friendship, shining like a star in the night, a salute to the stars in the sky. It would sound as the chime of a bell, it would be built of colored prisms. There would be columns of prayer and columns of sorrow, austere black at the base, but changing into radiant gold in the height.

Taut planned a house rotating on a sort of turntable according to the light of the sun. One of his dream houses was actually built, a house of glass, simple and convincing in its construction. It was the highlight of the last architectural exhibit in Cologne before World War I. He experimented with color in architecture, converting the drab and gray city of Magdeburg into a multicolored maze.

In Berlin he built 12,000 flats, not according to fantasy but according to the needs of middle class people. He was a pioneer of modern functional housing. He accepted a teaching position in Istanbul, but death came before he reached his new field of action.


Between 1460 and 1464, the Milanese architect, Antonio Averlino, mainly known by his self-given humanistic name Filarete, wrote a treatise on architecture, which reads in part like a didactical novel. He presents challenging ideas for an ideal city of tremendous dimensions to be built rapidly according to a working schedule. He plans the working hours of a manpower of 12,000 masters, seven assistants, 90,000 workmen, altogether 102,000 men, working under military supervision. The ideal city would be star-shaped. It would be a functional city, each building designed for its purpose: palaces for princes and bishops; living quarters for the burghers; schools according to new educational systems; animal parks; a tremendous hospital with hygienic devices. There would be water reservoirs, aqueducts and sewers. The entire city would easily be flooded for cleaning purposes. There would also be a Hall of Fame for outstanding artists, connected with the architect’s own house: the house of “Onituan,” i.e. Antonio Filarete. Filarete’s ideal city was crowned by a building in the shape of a mountain. A court surrounds two concentric cylindrical towers, one within the other. They were adorned both on the inside and outside with pillared terraces and collonades. A steep staircase leads to the top of the tower of “Virtue,” hard but rewarding to climb, while another entrance leads down to the halls and caves of “Vice.” In front of these caves are mud holes with pigs burrowing in the dirt. The door leading into the “Hall of Vice” carries the inscription “Enter to indulge in pleasure, which afterwards you will regret.”


It can be questioned whether architects trained in the rigorous discipline of Francois Blondel, even though considered revolutionary, would be able to swing themselves high enough into the clouds of imagination to fit into our pattern of fantastic architecture.

It is typical that in the Post-Baroque period in France, the most elementary solid forms appeared revolutionary. Boullee’s spiral tower, a truncated cone on a square base and his Newton Memorial, a perfect sphere had to remain projects on paper. However, Ledoux’s ideal city was built, at least partly. The story of these buildings has to be told as a “parallel in reverse”—if this expression is allowed, to the condemnation of the Watts Towers.

Ledoux’s ideal city was planned and partly built around the Salt Works of Chaux between the villages of Arc and Senans in the French Conte. The French Government, conscious of its cultural heritage, maintains a department for the preservation of monuments. Though Ledoux’s name at that time was fairly unknown, the owner of the Salt Works anticipated a “preservation order.” To forestall the governmental interference, he committed vandalism. He had Ledoux’s buildings dynamited in 1926. Only a few ruins are left.

Ledoux’s theatre in Besancon (still existing) is rational. At that time it was new in arrangement. Fantastic is only the way in which he rendered his impressive solution of a great building problem in an engraving. The interior of the theatre with its Palladian row of columns in the top rank and the semicircle of the audience in the parquet is mirrored in a big eyeball. The eyelids and eyebrows, as if drawn from an ancient sculpture, give an almost surrealistic frame, emphasizing the purpose of the theatre: seeing.

His house of the surveyors of the river is a symbol of man’s rule over the elements of nature. “It consists of a low prismatic block with open stairs on each side, and a superimposed horizontal semi-cylinder. Ledoux makes the river pass through the building so that the mightily vaulting is set astride the rushing water. Familiar with the architect’s inclination to dramatize form, we understand that the floods are to produce an uproar which stone alone cannot bring about.”

Ledoux is considered the most imaginative of the architects of the Post-Baroque period, but his imagination is interspersed with humanistic erudition and literary meaning. They are romantic allegories or “speaking architecture,” (architecture parlante).


A project designed by the constructivist painter Vladimir Tatlin in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Tatlin tower was designed to house a radio station. The project was in the spotlight of attention in the years of political revolution after World War I. Artists and architects of many nations thought this was the time to find new shapes for a new world. Tatlin found a form both functional and symbolic for his construction: the spiral, a curve generating from one point, moving in a straight line around a fixed center, at the same time rising continuously upwards; motion expressed in architecture. The spiral expressed best the spirit of Tatlin’s day, when new ideas arose from the fields of war-ruins and the debris of broken ideals. Remarkable in Tatlin’s tower is the interpenetration of inner and outer space.

ANTONIO GAUDI (1852–1926)

A cluster of four characteristic open work spires dominates the city of Barcelona. They soar to the sky from the facade of the Church of the Sagrada Familia, Gothic in spirit but hardly comparable to any style, a phenomenon in the age of functionalism. The open work spires above the facade of “Sagrada Familia” “break out into elaborate plastic finials whose multi-planar surfaces are covered with a music of broken tiling in brilliant colors . . . their note of free fantasy is raised in monumental scale . . . His “collages” of broken tiles have passages that remind one, when these are seen in isolation, of the work of such painters as Klee or Ernst or even Leger . . . his whole approach to the assembly of bits of broken crockery, often including fragments of the most vulgar and tasteless origin, parallels Dada and Surrealist practices and most specifically the “Merzbilder of Schwitters.”

The splendor of Gaudi’s surfaces leaves the spectator spellbound, and frequently detracts from the architectural planning and significance of his buildings. Gaudi’s buildings move freely into space, often ignoring the borderline between sculpture and architecture. The strength of Gaudi’s inner vision and emotion breaks forth disregarding rules and limitations of style. Gaudi is self-willed and inimitable, a unique apparition in the history of architecture.


Kurt Schwitters’ “Column” or “MERZbau,” also called “Cathedral of Erotic Misery” by its maker, has been destroyed by bombs during World War II. The house, in Hannover, Germany, Waldhausenstrasse 5, was entirely demolished, the debris swept away, and a new house built over the bomb crater.

The column was the mast of Kurt Schwitters’ ship of imagination. Through twelve years I had watched it growing and breaking through the ceiling. Schwitters’ studio had to be converted into a duplex. The column was a three dimensional structure of wood, cardboard, iron scraps, broken furniture and picture frames. The most heterogeneous materials were transformed into structural elements of an indoor tower, a sculptural architecture or architectural sculpture. When I saw it for the last time, it appeared more architectural, simplified in form and color to what today would, perhaps, be called “classic abstractionism.”

Kurt Schwitters believed firmly in abstract art, in functional architecture and construction. He called the expressionists “men who emptied their sour souls on canvas.” However, the column had not only formal but also expressive significance through literary and symbolic allusions. It was a depository of Schwitters’ own problems, a Cathedral built not only around his erotic misery, but around all joy and misery of his life and time. There were cave-like openings hidden in the abstract structure, with secret doors of colored blocks. These secret doors were opened only to initiated friends. There was a “murderer’s cave,” with a broken plaster cast of a female nude, stained bloody with lipstick or paint; there was a caricature abode of the Nibelungen; in one of the caves a small bottle of urine was solemnly displayed.

This 3 dimensional document of Schwitters’ world appeared humorous in its details to many, but Schwitters’ world was austere, sad and even tragic, though it also was constructive, striving and gay. Kurt Schwitters had an indestructible sense of humor which covered his crevasses of misery.

As Schwitters and his art matured the caves of the column were covered by architectural elements. It became a more formal architectural labyrinth or an ideal palace for imaginative thought to hide.


Two decades ago Buckminster Fuller’s projects were considered designs for a mathematical Utopia. Fuller was called a visionary crackpot. He got in trouble with the building code. His designs for houses were omnidirectional, translucent and light. This sounds similar to Bruno Taut’s dithyrambic outbursts, however, Buckminster Fuller was a man of down to earth reality. If Sam Rodia built instinctively and intuitively, creating a purposeless work of art by hand, which cannot be repeated, Buckminster Fuller constructs scientifically for industrial production in enormous quantities. He has a definite purpose: nothing less than rehousing an overpopulated world.

Fuller’s constructions are translucent like Sam Rodia’s, but they are strictly geometrical, a multiplication of tetrahedrons, an orgy of tetrahedrons! The multiplication and combination of mathematical forms gives both uniformity and variety to his constructions, a new beauty for a brave new world.

Fuller uses standardized aircraft materials for all parts of his constructions, materials which combine rigidity with utmost lightness and economy.

Fuller’s Utopic dreams of yesterday are in use today all over the earth. His geodesic domes are carried by air to sites in distant places, wherever aircraft hangars and shelters are needed. His domes appear in Afghanistan and near the poles. A pinned map. of the world shows their distribution, a world-victory of the translucent, the light, the tensile strength.

Kate Trauman Steinitz



Postman Cheval: Pierre Gueguen, Architecture et Sculpture Naive. Le Palais de Facteur Cheval a Haute Rives. “Aujourd'hui, Art et Architecture,” 2: 8:38–41, June 1956. 

Bruno Taut: Josef Ponten, Architektur die nicht gebaut wurde, Stuggart, Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1925.

Sforzinda: Antonio Averlino Filaretes, Traktat über die Baukunst, ed. Dr. Wolfgang von Oettingen, Wien, Graisser, 1890. Josef Ponten, Architektur die nicht gebaut wurde, Berlin, Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1925.

Boulle and Ledoux: Emil Kaufmann, Three Revolutionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeu, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 42, part 3, 1952. Philadelphia, The American Philosophical Society, October 1952.

Tatlin: Gideon, S., Space, Time, Architecture, Cambridge, Harvard U. Press, 1914.

Gaudi: Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Gaudi, New York, Museum of Modern Art (1957). Quotations derived from this booklet.