Monday, November 29, 2010

Actual Cityscapes: The Water Towers

When I arrived in New York last year one of the first things to draw my attention were the strange looking structures standing at the top of almost every building. I was not completely sure about their function, but I assumed these were water tanks, since that’s what I learned from the Dark Water movie (filmed on the location of Roosevelt Island). This architectural feature is not used in my home country (or in Europe generally), and the idea of having water tanks on the rooftops of the buildings was for some reason fascinating to me. I found it interesting that most of the buildings in my neighborhood had their water tanks walled and enclosed in a structure that was supposed to resemble the building itself, so it seemed that they were hidden on purpose to make their exterior look just like a part of the edifice. While some were meticulously incorporated into the buildings’ facades and made almost unnoticeable, most of them appeared as quite conspicuous structures in themselves, some even having window-like openings through which a wooden tank could be clearly discerned. Although these things never seemed too aesthetically appealing to me, especially the open ones that one sees more frequently, I began perceiving the water tower structures as the most typical material features of New York City.

The water towers may look somewhat weird as architectural objects of a city such as New York, yet they are one of its most fashionable and recognizable traits. They became common in the architecture of New York City in the late 19th century, and in the basic design and appearance they have changed little. Their function, needless to say, remained the same, however in some parts of the city, such as Tribeca, they are the required elements of buildings even if not actually used, hence serving only the aesthetic purposes. Even if their materiality stands as a contrast to New York City’s modern urban image, the water towers have incorporated themselves into the visual experience of the city to such an extent that they’ve become one of its most unique material features. In the New York Times article, they are described as “rustic, weathered sentinels” resembling “a relic from a forgotten time” yet remaining “a fixture of the cityscape” (Charles 2007), while a manager of one of the two water tower construction companies in New York has defined them as icons of the city and parts of its tradition. It appears that the water towers of New York have shaped the visual and material culture of the city by perfectly fitting into the tendency that shapes its image as a hybrid of traditional and modern things – being kind of rusty, rickety and archaic-like, these large wooden tanks standing on metal constructions seem to be able to recreate a more traditional-looking element of old industrial cityscapes and incorporate it into a contemporary urban environment in a fashionable way.

It is interesting how the materiality of water towers may be revealing of people’s aesthetics, for they can be perceived as something that if visible can distort the nice urban imagery and should hence be hidden behind the walled structures, while at the same time it is precisely their unsightly appearance, in its irregularity of shapes, sizes, and types, that has come to define its specific character and aesthetics, standing as an essential material element of the New York cityscape.

-- Petar


Charles, J. 2007 – Longtime Emblems of City Roofs, Still Going Strong. The New York Times:

Elliott, D. 2006 – Wondering About Water Towers

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