Kempten’s Dam Generates Symbiotic Power

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” -Heraclitus

Kempten Hydro Plant at Twilight

Hydroelectric power plants and the dams that accompany them often have a discordant relationship with the rivers they harness. Stark and brutalistic, they use the raw forces of concrete engineering and human ingenuity to transform the flow of water into the flow of electricity. Recognizing this, the design firm Becker Architekten created a structure that seems to grow from the river while providing power to 5,000 homes in the town of Kempten, Germany. Located in the foothills of the Northern Alps, this southern Bavarian town sought to rebuild their fifty year old dam on the Iller River with an eye for aesthetic quality. Becker Architekten began the process by sculpting more than fifty models to ensure they achieved the right design. Only after conceiving a beautiful, natural shape did the firm begin the computer drafting process for the 150m long structure.

The results are breath-taking. Arising from the water like a small river bend or sandy bar, the dam flows organically and contrasts nicely with the industrial architecture on the surrounding banks. Michael Becker, founder of Becker Architekten, comments on the effect, “On the one hand, the plant has a very restrained visual language and actually puts the old mill center stage; but at the same time, its language is self-confident and modern. [It’s] that interplay, creating a new whole, that’s the plant’s great strength.”

Interior View of Kempten Hydro PlantBesides differing yet accenting the basic industrial buildings adjoining its flowing exterior, the plant contains contrasts within itself. The outside concrete has a covering layer of native river pebbles that both protects the structure from and blends it with the river and elements. Inside, the dam could be no more different. Roughly hewn wood beams outline raw concrete and help direct the water to whirling turbines that meet the highest noise-reduction standards while delivering 25% more power than the plant it replaces. Soaring columns and arches highlight a stark design that focuses on the pragmatic purpose yet gives it an airy, cathedral-like atmosphere.

With all of the above considered, this power plant accomplishes the feat of being both an atmospheric and technical building, accentuating the river and surrounding urban landscape. A previously existing bicycle and pedestrian bridge, with the new hydroelectric plant built around it, has carried over 14,000 tourists since operations began in November 2010. An old mill and other industrial buildings in the vicinity, while currently sitting vacant, now have a new lease as residential renovations take place, helping revitalize the immediate area.

Besides recognition from visitors and civic planners, the dam has landed Becker Architekten several awards, namely the pbb German Commercial Award 2010, the German Architecture Prize 2011 Concrete, and a place on the finalist list for the 2010 Liechtenstein International Award for Sustainable Building in the Alps. The Iller River Hydroelectric Plant shows the way that even the most pragmatic buildings can inspire people and communities when both the surrounding’s aesthetic and design purpose receive consideration.

Kempten Hydro Plant Flowing River

Image credits: Becker Architekten,,