Knocknaheeny's iconic water tower at Hollyhill is a prominent and distinctive feature of Cork’s skyline.

Seen from all corners of the city, this Brutalist structure resembling a giant shuttlecock is part of a water supply system to the growing social developments in the area as striking as it is functional.

The water tower adjoins the reservoir north of the river Lee on hills overlooking Cork city to provide clean drinking water for the development of 1,700 houses in Churchfield, Hollyhill and Knocknaheeny. It was commissioned by Cork Corporation (Cork City Council) in the late 1960s and is now owned by Uisce Éireann (formerly Irish Water). The water tower and reservoir are walled off from the road.

The basic principle of a water tower, like the storage tank in a house, is to raise a body of water to increase the pressure (hence its location at the highest point in Cork City), which in turn increases the distance the reservoir can serve. Sufficient height overcomes the friction in the piping through which it travels to your kitchen sink. The common "wine glass" shape of water towers makes the amount of water stored proportional to height, so that, as the tower empties, a reasonable head of water is maintained.

In 1968, when the plans were first revealed in Cork City Hall, Cllr Gerald Goldberg declared it 'futurist’ and suggested it ‘will fit into the landscape’. The construction drawings for the water tower were prepared by engineering consultants Malcahy Walsh & Partners (established in 1967 and continues today as MWP). They were the engineers for such projects as the Ford Motors Factory, the Nire Valley Bridge in Waterford, and Kerry Airport. The contractors Bowen and Mulally & Co. began work in June 1971.

The freestanding water tower is built on a circular plan, with the tank describing continuous curve so there would be no joint or weak spots. It has a storage capacity of 400,000 gallons (181,8400 litres), is 24.5m tall with a conical roof of 13m radius and is fitted with the usual access ladder, manhole and lightning conductor. Reinforced concrete ‘kinked’ piers, circling precast concrete columnar tube with precast concrete, support the tank. The fluted tank and delightfully scalloped coping is inspired by the Château d'Eau de la Guérinière (1956-8) in the market complex in Caen, France, which featured in the British publication The Engineer in 1958. It was one of many water towers designed by the Brutalist architect Guillaume Gillet (1912-87) and engineer René Sarger (1917-88) and was listed as an historic with ‘20th-century heritage’ classification in 2010.

After fifteen months of construction, the Knocknaheeny water tower was finished in 1972. The estimated cost of £58,200 rose to £73,896 on completion. Although a humble water tower, the engineers of Knocknaheeny gave as much consideration to its elegant design as much as its functionality. This writer wonders if the commission was given today would the same freedom in design be granted.

Thanks to help from Nuala Hansard, Brendan Fehily and James Goulding.