Issue 23
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Amending Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower: Infrastructure as Art, Art as Infrastructure

By James Middlebrook

Some commissions are obtained by indirect or unusual means. Several years ago, luck and other factors resulted in the author of this paper obtaining a design commission that was not sought after. Of particular note, in this case the commissioning client did not foresee that the commission would add on to a famous contemporary art installation piece. This scenario involved an artwork that intelligently works in a surreptitious manner – so much so, that client and viewers alike may not have recognized the work’s extents. Not only is it unclear just where the artwork ends, but the client initially did not acknowledge that working on the project’s context meant working on the artwork itself.

The additions to this particular project were diminutive in physical scale, consisting mostly of four ladders, a number of steel railings, and an expanse of metal grating. It started as a simple work order from the Building Services Department at the Museum of Modern Art, but in retrospect, the conceptual depth of this project far exceeds that of any other professional contract on which I have worked. The project revolves around (or extends, as I explain below) Water Tower, a translucent resin cast of the interior of a 12′ high by 9′ wide wooden water tank that was Rachel Whiteread’s first public sculpture in the United States, completed in June 1998.1 Originally situated beside two functioning water tanks seven stories above the Soho streetscape at the corner of West Broadway and Grand Street in New York City, the work was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and relocated to their property in June 2000.2

Whiteread’s piece is a statement about perceiving the physical context of the urban skyline. It is an “ephemeral”3 and stealthy full-scale simulacrum that quickly drew public interest and has since developed significant “cult value”, to use Walter Benjamin’s term.4 As Whiteread has gained prominence in the public eye, this work that started as a curiosity has gained iconic status, and its financial and cultural value now far exceeds that of the archetypal object that it was derived from: the large rooftop tank that typically holds water to pressurize the high-rise city’s domestic plumbing systems. At first glance, Whiteread’s sculpture appears almost indistinguishable from those generic and uncelebrated infrastructural elements that sit on top of each building within the city. The primary visual cue of the difference between the original objects and this artwork is the latter’s translucence. The quality of transparency works within Water Tower in a number of ways, both literal and metaphoric. The walls of the resin cast are about four inches thick, allowing some light to pass through indirectly.5 This effect is reminiscent of water, thus recalling the intended contents of water tanks, and this optical effect modulates according to the angle of the sun. In the evening, the material takes on a more static, dark appearance; during these moments its aesthetic is more aligned with that of the solid container of the water tank itself than of the water, resulting in ambiguity that often allows for the piece to be mistaken for a real water tank by the uninitiated. Within this aesthetic ambiguity and stealthy oscillation lies a key strength of the piece: it speaks to the background role of the ubiquitous water tank, which works as a particular yet rarely acknowledged characteristic of the New York City skyline.

In 1994, Whiteread was approached by administrators of the Public Art Fund6, a nonprofit organization founded by Doris Freedman that has funded artist projects in New York City since 19777 They invited her to make a site-specific piece for a city street. Whiteread, who is English, felt that as a foreigner, it was not her place to add to the street level congestion. However, she was interested in making work that would “give those places and spaces that have never really had a place in the world some sort of authority and some sort of voice.”8 While walking around the city, she noticed the numerous water towers on the rooftops and began thinking about their relationship to urban context: “I didn’t really know what they were, didn’t really know why they were there, but as these weird wooden barrel-like objects that sat on top of many roof tops in very awkward ways.”9 She subsequently developed a project from this ubiquitous New York City infrastructural form.

Water Tower has been analyzed by several scholars in Lacanian terms, who attempt to link it thematically with her earlier work through feminist psychoanalytics.10 The art historian Sue Malvern has written that although the work may “look like a radical departure from Whiteread’s customary work” of “bodily, domestic and even abject objects” that read “as metaphors of memory, absence and death,” there have been claims linking it to these themes.11 Critics Robert Storr and Molly Nesbit have separately written about the work as an uncanny and “alien” piece, referencing the artist as a foreign entity and describing the piece as an “immigrant” object existing on the rooftop.12 Through such a reading, the work can be understood as a dialogue with the iconic, a discussion that is particularly relevant in a city that boasts so many famous objects and celebrated vistas within its landscape; such an interpretation is underscored by Whiteread’s creation of a postcard in which her piece was humorously presented next to landmark buildings and sculptures of the city, such as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.13 The recognition of the Dada-like condition within this and similar projects that iconize the generic reinforces the notion that the particular within this piece represents a wider field; the water tower calls attention to all water towers, and possibly all urban water tanks and domestic plumbing systems. This is turn redirects the discussion to a broader cultural context, which I will consider later in this essay.

Whiteread’s Water Tower has been heralded in the international world of contemporary art since its completion.14 However, the cultural and economic value of this work was not a priority for officials in the New York City Fire Department when they requested improved access to the roof on which it resides. MoMA’s Building Service staff prepared a work order for a series of ladders and railings to be built around the structure so that fire officials could safely access the roof area, without considering the changes that these additions would make to the work itself. The staff’s request for mundane ladder and railing improvements was bureaucratically channeled through MoMA’s on-call architectural consultant, and through this process I found myself facing the prospect of designing components in close proximity to, or maybe even inclusive of, Whiteread’s now-celebrated design.

The sculptural tank form is not self-supporting but requires significant infrastructure of its own. Described by the artist as “physically present yet ephemeral”, the four-and-a-half ton translucent resin form (cast from an actual water tank) had been designed to sit on a steel dunnage (support frame) structure, just like real water tanks on the roofs of the city.15 This structural support has been important in the display of the work at each of its locations. Although the resin component remained unchanged, the supporting structure has been significantly altered several times since the work was initially assembled in 1998. At its Soho site, the dunnage was significantly taller than at the MoMA site. The original structure had two complete x-frame braces stacked vertically, and these were buttressed along one axis with diagonal braces. An access ladder was placed almost centrally along one of the longer sides. Overall, the volume of the support structure was at least twice as large as the tank itself. The level of detail and the black sinuous quality of the structural steel members, connections, and ladders contrasted with the smooth aesthetic of the tank form. The tank resembled a space capsule sitting on complex booster rockets amid the diagonally braced scaffolding of a launch pad, which communicated a sense of suspension or extension through expressive structure. This version of the structure possessed a Constructivist quality that was fitting for the industrial Soho context.

When the work was purchased by MoMA and relocated to its site in 2000, the dunnage was truncated to a fraction of its original height, so that the braced frame was less than half the height of the tank. This diminished iteration of the structure, the smallest of the various installation configurations as of this writing, was perhaps more aesthetically in line with its new context, which consists of sleek high rise office and apartment towers that contrast with the older, industrial aesthetic of the Soho location. When first displayed on the MoMA property, the piece was placed high above 54th Street, directly on the roof membrane, behind a thin black metal guardrail that lined the roof’s edge.

The backdrop at the midtown location differs significantly from the previous. At its Soho location, the piece was viewed as part of the skyline, as a feature among the geometries of surrounding rooftops. At MoMA, there are many significantly taller skyscrapers in the immediate vicinity, so from almost all viewing angles the water tank is seen against the other buildings rather than the sky. For the most part, this positioning eliminates the potential for viewing the piece as a silhouette on the city skyline; it is now a detail within a field of building textures rather than a prominent articulation within the strong line that demarcates the transition between city and sky. Water tanks are less prominently featured in the midtown high-rise context in comparison to the older industrial neighborhoods downtown. In 2000, the Museum had few alternatives for displaying the piece, since the purchase occurred before the construction of its Queens branch property.

During the major renovation of the Museum by Yoshio Taniguchi from 2002 to 2004, the sculpture was relocated to the top of 21 West 53th Street, a building designed by Philip Johnson.16 Due to this building’s delicate roof construction, it was decided that extra weight should be avoided. Rather than placing the sculpture and its truncated dunnage directly on the roof surface, as had previously been the case, it would rest upon a large flat truss laid horizontally across the entire width of the building, and this would be connected to the building frame at the ends only. A structural engineering company was commissioned to design this steel truss, which is fifty feet long and suspended approximately 18 inches above the roofing membrane. With this iteration of the artwork, the structure accompanying the tank had once again grown to become a significant element.

Fig. 1. A detail view of the relocated sculpture atop the steel truss, designed for the purpose of spanning the building designed by Philip Johnson; this was the configuration of the piece after the Museum of Modern Art's 2002-2004 renovation (photo by the author).

Fig. 1. A detail view of the relocated sculpture atop the steel truss, designed for the purpose of spanning the building designed by Philip Johnson; this was the configuration of the piece after the Museum of Modern Art’s 2002-2004 renovation (photo by the author).

It was this version of the project that required alterations to suit the Fire Department’s mandate. While coordinating the design alterations, I began to question the physical extents of the artwork itself. Were its original supporting elements also part of the work, or was the art limited to the resin cast of the tank? To precisely which elements of the assemblage are cultural value assigned? Is this public value the determination of these limits of the work, or are these limits (or can they be) defined by the artist? Just where did the work of art end?

Questions about the limits of the work seemed the most crucial to address before proceeding, since unpacking the other questions would depend upon this determination. On one hand, the supporting structure could be understood as functioning in the same way as a pedestal in a museum, as a prop that allows appropriate framing of the artwork. However, the subject of this artwork is inherently generic and unnoticed at first glance; it is not a precious object on display. The piece disguises itself as a water tank rather than as art; in contrast, a pedestal reinforces the status of the artifact it supports. In this case, the supporting structure works as part of the disguise. The art is meaningful upon the viewer’s re-engagement following initial, ambiguous contact; this in turn is followed by a reconsideration of the work’s contextual conditions.

This interpretation aligns with Miwon Kwon’s description of contemporary practices as a “move away from the literal interpretation of the site“ towards a “multiplicitous expansion of the site in location and conceptual terms”.17 Through this lens, the artwork is less about the particular location or material but more about “historical and cultural specificities” that are conceptually addressed through “relational specificity”; that is to say, by framing one thing (cultural practice, institution, etc.) with another.18 As with Op Art, the contextual framing itself can become foreground, resulting in ambiguity of “artifact” and “support”. With the foregrounding of context, the conceptual emphasis of the piece shifts from physical to conceptual, from “art work” to “art.”

Fig. 2. Diagram of design principles prepared by the author to guide the addition of infrastructure to the post-2004 version of Whiteread’s project (image by the author).

Fig. 2. Diagram of design principles prepared by the author to guide the addition of infrastructure to the post-2004 version of Whiteread’s project (image by the author).

It is possible to interpret Water Tower in terms of its conceptual extension beyond the resin tank form, such as through its generic quality that thereby implicates all water tanks within the city. In this respect, Whiteread’s work follows the German photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher, whose extensive visual cataloguing of water towers over multiple decades revealed differences in the respective material cultures of each country observed.19 Their 1988 book Water Towers consists of hundreds of black-and-white photographic plates of water towers photographed in a consistent manner; the cropping, camera position, and lighting conditions of each photograph were intentionally rendered as similar as possible to produce “objective” cataloging through precise control of the photographic medium.20 The visual differences between each water tower and its respective context speaks to many different and particular cultural, technological, and natural processes. Multiple historical periods were evident within the series, prompting an interpretation of these images as “nostalgic ruminations on a lost era.”21 The Bechers’s book situates the individual elements of infrastructure within an extended network of various settings in much the same way that Whiteread’s Water Tower addresses the individual nature of a specific typographic structure.

Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw have written an essay suggesting that water towers (such as those photographed by the Bechers and later emulated by Whiteread) are relics from previous centuries when the infrastructural network was more visible within the urban landscape. They argue that in recent decades, the “urban networks in the contemporary city are largely hidden, opaque, invisible, disappearing underground, locked into pipes, cables, conduits, tubes, passages and electronic waves. It is exactly this hidden form that renders the tense relationship between nature and the city blurred, that contributes to severing the process of social transformation of nature from the process of urbanization.”22 Through this reading, Whiteread’s piece can be considered as a recollection of such a network at a time when infrastructural systems are not only buried under the ground and inside building structures, but are increasingly virtual in nature. The creation of this art work during the height of the “dot-com” era might not be coincidental, but rather serve a reminder of earlier historical layers still physically evident within the palimpsest of the city. Just as the grand water pumping stations of nineteenth-century Europe eventually disappeared, the Industrial Age elements of New York City’s skyline that are taken for granted as permanent can also be understood as transitory.

The shifting optical qualities of the tank form further reinforce the importance of context – the perception of light through Water Tower is particularly crucial, for the piece visually transforms depending upon the relative position of the sun and viewer. As I studied the piece, its non-optical contextual implications became more interesting. The fact that the piece is titled Water Tower, rather than Water Tank, also suggests that its meaning implicates its surrounding environment. The term “tower” implies structure and typically refers to a raised assemblage, in this case elevated above the city. Gravity is doubly implicated in the project, through the structurally braced tower raised above the building proper, and therefore above the city, but also through recalling the original raison d’être for water tanks’ elevated locations: gravity provides the hydraulic water pressure in these buildings. It is a reminder of the artificial nature of the city and its skyscrapers, which exert a real physical presence through their structural integrity, yet operate in a contrived circumstance – the natural element of water is suspended in containment hundreds of feet above the ground.

The contextual significance of gravity within the artwork provided a clear design strategy for my task: the components to be added were thus organized with a design language to emphasize the structural nature of each condition. Efficient use of material was intended to minimize distraction from the tank’s form. However, the visual physicality of the structure and its resistance to gravity was paramount, and the industrial aesthetic was intended to complement Whiteread’s nostalgic portrayal of the tank element within the historically industrial skyline. Visually, the design addition was intended to recall twentieth century industrial modernity by employing that period’s exemplary building material: steel. Railings, guardrails, grating, and structural members were designed to be read as cohesive across the multiple levels of dunnage structure. All added components were specified to be steel, with existing and new elements alike (with the exception of the tank form itself) to be painted black in order to provide a uniform quality to the assemblage. The infrastructural nature of the sculpture was thus highlighted, as it extended across the roof and down to the next rooftop level below as an array of discrete elements working in concert. This linkage was also emphasized by having all additions connect to the existing structural base and by emphasizing those connections through the use of heavy bolts or welds to articulated plates. Although the new ladders did not necessarily need to be physically supported by the truss structure in order to fulfill their function, having the collection of elements read as one system further reinforces the idea of the infrastructural network that is implicated in Whiteread’s work .

Fig. 3. Whiteread's sculpture in its most recent configuration, as of publication in 2015. Various infrastructural elements (such as security cameras, rooftop vents, cables, rope, and railings) can be seen in and around the sculpture’s structural base iImage by the author).

Fig. 3. The MoMA rooftop in its most recent configuration, as of publication in 2015. Various infrastructural elements (such as security cameras, rooftop vents, cables, rope, and railings) can be seen in and around the sculpture’s structural base (image by the author).

At the time of my meeting with the chief curators of MoMA to discuss the issues and various options, I did not feel any closer to an answer to my existential query about the extents of the artwork. However, it was obvious that they understood the importance of these questions. They subsequently contacted their conservation consultants, as well as the artist, for advice and approval to proceed with alterations. The conservation consultants delineated specifications intended to keep fire department gear from scratching the resin tank as the ladders are climbed, and Rachel Whiteread (after viewing the proposal drawings that I had created) granted permission to the Museum to attach these additional infrastructural components to the piece. Although I did not get the opportunity to talk to the artist personally, I have often wondered about her reaction to the evolution of this particular artwork, a piece that speaks about the visual infrastructure of the city that was actually becoming part of this infrastructure. The exterior and alien presence of the piece was becoming domesticated and assimilated, and in many ways mirrored the additive infrastructure that characterizes the urban environment’s development. This expansion also regains some of the artwork’s perceived extension across the roofscape that was truncated upon the sculpture’s relocation from Soho; the infrastructural system still does not have quite the volume of the truss system in the original site, but the truss and ladders now extend both horizontally and vertically across the building.

Fig. 4. The sculpture and its associated infrastructure, including ladders, railings, and structural members, in its present configuration, as of publication in 2015 (photo by the author).

Fig. 4. Ladders, railings, and structural members, in the structure’s present configuration, as of publication in 2015 (photo by the author).

Just as the Museum of Modern Art has expanded its territorial footprint along its block between 53rd and 54th streets over a number of decades, and it indeed affects the entire city through its cultural and economic influence, so too does the assemblage that contains the Water Tower interact physically and culturally with its environment. Its elements extend through various scales of urban space, intertwined with building forms, not just as vital urban infrastructure does, but as infrastructure itself. In addition to their function as icons within the skyline, the water tanks are connected to the urban fabric through structure, piping, wiring, ladders, and similar infrastructural components. Over time, the structure of the Water Tower has undergone a number of expansions and contractions, with the former dominating the trend. Just as cities, corporations, and governments all operate in pursuit of their own expansion, the infrastructure associated with these institutions follows suit. These networks within the built environment (e.g. power, water, transportation, and communications) are being continually modified. Rather than existing as a static entity upon its initial completion, Water Tower has undergone a series of transformation since its initial construction, and this is likely to continue. The relocation of the work, the extension of structure, and the subsequent expansion of accessory elements may be followed in the future by further infrastructural additions.

As is the case with iterations of built infrastructure, multiple installations of sculptural work are typically not identified or named. With the possible exception of those elements publically associated with human safety (such as with passenger elevators and jetliners), work on components of infrastructure is rarely attributed to individuals and authorship is not publically shared – information about this is just not tracked, except for purposes of accountability. In these times, the authors of infrastructure are mostly anonymous, and there is little cultural value or caché associated with being involved in such projects. Infrastructure is generally not identified with individual vision or contribution in the same way as art, even as its maintenance and upgrade employs many people in its service and this process requires at least a modicum of innovation. Infrastructural work often exists as a subset of engineering, and is only occasionally identified as “design” in its purest sense. Fulfilling both functional and aesthetic sensibilities, design can be understood to straddle engineering and art, occupying a middle ground that stakes its own claim within culture. That Water Tower can be read as infrastructure, design, and art speaks to how well it is situated within an unusually broad context that supports its recognition in each of these cases.

Future configurations of Water Tower are difficult to predict because of unknowable demands, constraints, and technology. Despite the difficulty of envisioning alterations yet to come, we can imagine possible trajectories that extend the story of this work. One possibility is an enshrinement of the piece, in which an attempt is made to isolate the sculpture from active context so that it can be preserved as a sacred object. It is difficult to imagine how this could occur while the sculpture is located on an open rooftop, given the changing array of functions that must occur in such spaces. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine this artwork making sense at any location other than an open urban rooftop.

A second possible future for the piece could be its retirement or abandonment. In this scenario, the industrial imagery implicit in the work might no longer be accessible to the public, and the sculpture could lose its cult status. The original tank replica may no longer be associated with any cultural meaning, and this may be the ultimate limit of the artwork’s reach, as nostalgia for the industrial landscapes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will only survive as long as the respective cultural memory. At that point, the object might either be relegated to the archives as a curiosity that references past times and technology (moved aside so that the institution could display more publically accessible work), or it might sit forgotten on an urban roof top (alongside other obsolete infrastructure) until it is eventually decomposes or is disposed of unceremoniously.

A third scenario is perhaps the most interesting in terms of the narrative outlined in this paper: the work could continue to expand as infrastructure. In this scenario, the assemblage would incrementally augment, thus extending its iterative history. For example, the railings that I designed could later be used to mount communication equipment, a lightning arrestor system, or a holographic billboard. Rather than existing in a fixed state, it could continue to evolve at the hands of future generations and therefore continue to operate as synecdoche; its outcome would follow the existence of city fabric itself, which exhibits evidence of its long history of revision and modification even in its active and immediate present state. In this scenario, any discrete classification as art, design, or infrastructure may be blurred further as its relevance to the context is updated. This approach seems to me, as an architect, to be one that that in general makes sense for treatment of our built environment, and I would accordingly challenge those working within associated practices (such as art, design, or infrastructure) to aspire to such an integrated approach – one that does not conceptually compartmentalize spatial interventions but instead speaks to the various modes of human inhabitation and experience. Regardless of the next transformations of the artwork, the continued resilience of the piece reflects the strength of the artist’s concept. It iconizes and commemorates generic urban infrastructure in subtle and intelligent ways.


  1.  “Rachel Whiteread: Water Tower,” Public Art Fund, last modified 2013, accessed January 9, 2015.
  2.  “The Collection: Water Tower,” Museum of Modern Art, accessed July 11, 2008.
  3.  “Rachel Whiteread: Water Tower,” Public Art Fund, last modified 2013, accessed January 9, 2015.
  4.  See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (1936) in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken/Random House, 1968), 217-252.
  5.  In the interview conducted by MoMA upon accessioning the work, Whiteread stated that she had originally wanted the cast to be solid but found that technically impossible. The piece as constructed used 9000 pounds of resin. In the resulting work, there is no optical sense of the volume being hollow.
  6.  Sue Malvern, “Antibodies: Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower,” Art History 26, no. 3 (2003): 392.
  7.  “About: History,” Public Art Fund, last modified 2013, accessed January 25, 2015.
  8.  “The Collection: Water Tower,” Museum of Modern Art, accessed July 11, 2008.
  9.  Ibid.
  10.  Freudian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and her student Hannah Segal investigated the subject-object relationship in art and eloquently theorized the internal process. They extended Freud’s pioneering work on the psyche, utilizing concepts such as the id and ego, and speculated on their role within the creation of art. Nicola Glover, “The Development of Kleinian Aesthetics,” Psychoanalytic Aesthetics: The British School, accessed January 25, 2015.
  11.  Malvern, 392, 396.
  12.  Molly Nesbit, “Immigrant,” in Looking Up: Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower, ed. Louise Neri (New York: Public Art Fund / Scalo, 1999).
  13.  Malvern, 402-403.
  14.  Sarah A. Rosenbaum, “In situ: “Water Tower” de Rachel Whiteread,” trans. Catherine Vasseur, in Cahiers Du Musee National D’art Moderne (Pompidou Center Magazine) 96 (July 15, 2006): 30-55.
  15.  “Rachel Whiteread: Water Tower,” Public Art Fund, last modified 2013, accessed January 9, 2015.
  16.  “Museum History,” Museum of Modern Art, last modified 2015, accessed January 9, 2015.
  17.  Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October 80, (Spring, 1997): 95.
  18.  Ibid, 110.
  19.  Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers. (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1988): 7-8.
  20.  Ibid, 10.
  21.  “Bernd and Hilla Becher: Water Towers (Wasserturme),” Guggenheim, last modified 2015, accessed March 2, 2015.
  22.  Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw, “Fetishizing the Modern City: The Phantasmagoria of Urban Technological Networks,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 1 (2000): 121.

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