In Season Potable water meets palatable design.

In Season Potable water meets palatable design.

Issue 40

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Arts & Culture

  • Words Bella Gladman
  • Left Photograph Risto Kamunen, 1968
  • Right Photograph Kirrily Morris/Alamy

In functional terms, a water tower is just about the most uninspiring piece of construction imaginable. Ubiquitous and enormous, they are used to create the pressure that pumps water into local taps, showerheads and swimming pools. But these hulking storage units have become a surprise success story of municipal architecture. Perhaps because of the way they define horizons, water towers invite the fanciful imagination of architects and planners. American water towers have often taken on novelty shapes (corncobs, ketchup bottles, pineapples) while modern architects have built new towers with bold lines—a phenomenon faithfully documented by mid-century photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher, who published a whole photo book, Anonymous Sculptures, dedicated to water towers and other industrial architecture. 

Why do we like them so much? Joan Didion described her awe at the civil engineering involved in California’s water system in her 1977 essay Holy Water, and indeed water towers fulfill the fascination with grand designs that humans have had since the Tower of Babel. Being community projects rather than luxury buildings, however, water towers have escaped the phallocentric hubris that skyscrapers have acquired over the years. They are human-made and civic minded, but still capable of inspiring awe.  

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 40

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