Whiteread was born in London. Her mother, Pat Whiteread, was also an artist. Rachel studied painting in Brighton and later sculpture at London's Slade School of Art under Antony Gormley. She began to exhibit in 1987, with her first solo exhibition coming in 1988.
Many of Whiteread's works use ordinary domestic objects, and she has made several pieces which are plaster casts of the same which she says carry "the residue of years and years of use". She has also made casts of particular parts of rooms, the area underneath furniture, for example.
In 1990 she expanded on her earlier work with Ghost, the first of her works to cast an entire living space and the first to bring her to the attention of the public and critics. Like her earlier works, it shows signs of a place having been lived in, with patches of wallpaper and specks of colour from paint discernable on the walls. It is a cast of an entire room, and this motif was expanded in 1993 with House.
House, perhaps her best known work, was a concrete cast of the inside of an entire Victorian terraced house, exhibited at the location of the original house - 193 Grove Road - in East London (all the houses in the street had earlier been knocked down by the council). It drew mixed responses, winning her both the Turner Prize for best young British artist in 1993 and the K Foundation art award for worst British artist. In 1994, the local council (Tower Hamlets) decided to demolish House, a decision which caused some controversy itself.
For the Sensation exhibition in 1997, Whiteread exhibited Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), a series of resin casts of the space underneath chairs. This work can be seen as a descendant of Bruce Nauman's concrete cast of the area under his chair of 1965.
In 1998, Whiteread made Water Tower for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was a resin cast of a water tower which stood on the building's roof. Just as Ghost led on to the larger and better known House, so Water Tower led to the more public Trafalgar Square plinth work three years later.
With Untitled Monument (2001; also variously known as Plinth or Inverted Plinth), Whiteread became the third artist to provide a sculpture for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Her sculpture was a resin cast of the plinth itself, which stood upsidedown, making a sort of mirror-image of the plinth. It was said to be the largest object ever made out of resin.
Whiteread's casts often seem to emphasise the fact that the objects they represent are not themselves there, and critics have often regarded her work to be redolent of death and absence. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that she was asked by Austrian authorities to create a work in remembrance of Austrian Jews killed during the Holocaust.
The work turned out to be Holocaust Monument (2000; also known as Nameless Library) and is located at one end of the Judenplatz in Vienna. It is a room-sized concrete cast, with the walls made up of rows of books, with the pages, rather than the spines, turned outward. On one of the walls is a set of double-doors, also in concrete.
Unlike many other Young British Artists who often seem to welcome controversy, Whiteread has often said how uncomfortable she feels about it.