He’s still a bit in awe. “I hadn’t exactly planned on emigrating to the U.S.,” says Bastian Wibranek. Darmstadt and San Antonio have been twin cities since 2017. The German digital pioneering city and the Texan metropolis, one of the fastest growing agglomerations in the U.S., have a lot in common – such as a lively academic exchange. When his PhD supervisor pointed out to him the job offer by the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) back in 2019, the job description fit his profile to a t, and he had nearly finished his doctoral thesis, too. So he wrote his application, “but somehow I hadn’t really thought that it would work out,” says the 38-year-old specialist in Digital Design. Professor Oliver Tessmann
Virtual teaching sessions
About three years later, Bastian Wibranek is sitting at his desk in his office at the university that’s located nearly 8,700kms away from Darmstadt as the crow flies. The background of his Zoom window shows the flags of UTSA. Flags and the university logo are everywhere on campus. Corporate Design, Marketing, Finance – the university is tautly organized, “nearly like a corporation,” says the young professor. In 2021, the TU Darmstadt alumnus started his new job in the U.S. – if only virtually at the outset. Initially, he was to have started in 2020 already, but Covid-19 held the world in its grip. Wibranek’s doctorate was delayed because of the pandemic and time lags in his laboratory experiments; also, the travel and visa situation turned out to be rather difficult. That’s why he started teaching without a PhD title as an “instructor” and did so online from Germany, holding tutorials for his new students in the U.S. via Zoom and YouTube.
2021 then turned out to be the “most busy and eventful year of my life,” he says, laughing. Not only did he successfully finish his doctorate, he also moved to a different continent and properly started his teaching position as an Assistant Professor in Texas. He also became the father of a little daughter and married his fiancée who holds a U.S. passport and followed him to San Antonio.
Bastian Wibranek’s focus area is digital design. “We are the computer scientists in architecture,” he explains. He does research on how computer programmes or computer-based manufacturing processes can be used to design, plan, and construct buildings, e.g. as algorithms for facade design or for optimizing floor plans. What does software have to be able to do, how do machines and robots have to be adjusted? This TU Darmstadt alumnus is a specialist for digital design and manufacturing. As cases in point, he cites 3D-printed models, CDC milling, deploying robots on construction sites, and the pre-fabrication of construction parts. It is important to him to design and deploy new technologies in such a way that the potential of the digital technologies can come into their own in an optimal way. The 38-year-old who graduated at the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main as a Master in Advanced Architectural Design and who worked together with renowned artists calls it “digital aesthetics”.
This is what he wants to convey to his students. During his first year, Wibranek, who was born in Essen, taught a class of 16 architects-in-the-making, next semester he will teach two so-called Design Studios. In Darmstadt, his focus was more on research; in San Antonio, he holds lectures, classes, and office hours nearly every day. He says that the contact with the students is intense.
This city close to the Mexican border has a strong Hispanic heritage; the university has committed itself to promote inclusion and diversity which is why professors there are encouraged to also integrate examples of Mexican or South American architecture into their classes. Wibranek wrote his doctorate in English, but here he faces students who speak English better than he does. “I know the technical terms alright, but sometimes it’s still a bit bumpy,” he admits. Going to university in the States is expensive. “Some students have to work very hard so that they can afford to come to my classes. Not all of them have a scholarship.” That increases the pressure to make it worth their while. But the young professor has also made the experience that most of his students are highly motivated and the number of dropouts is very low.
Tenure track professorship
At his new university, Bastian Wibranek can count on his own experiences from his doctorate at TU Darmstadt. When he came to Darmstadt as a young post-grad and joined the , the department of Architecture had just been installed. “There were only four of us – Professor Tessmann, a secretary, and two PhD students. I helped build up the research group and learned it all from the very beginning,” Wibranek recalls. These are valuable experiences for him now, since he finds himself in a similar situation. The alumnus from TU Darmstadt holds a tenure track professorship. For five years, his work as a professor will be evaluated, and in case of good results, he may move on to a permanent tenure, similar to a state-appointed professorship in Germany. Digital Design research group
His teaching and research are interdisciplinary. The young professor works together with colleagues from materials science, computer science, robotics, and engineering. Among them, there are many international scientists and lecturers from Europe and Asia. He is enthusiastic about life at this university and its many opportunities. Just this semester, he worked together with a large real estate company in San Antonio. As part of this cooperation, his students designed and built a structure providing shade for a prominent public open space in the city centre. “Support from all sides was enormous, and the building could be constructed really fast. In Germany, things would never have come about so quickly,” he says. Currently, he is doing research on the re-usability of construction materials with the aid of digital technologies. “That’s a topic I already did research on while at TU Darmstadt.”
He describes the people in Texas as very friendly and open. Before this, Wibranek had never spent a longer time abroad. But he had always wanted to live in a warmer country. In San Antonio, the temperature this morning has already reached 40°C. Both he and his wife enjoy living in this city where American and Mexican cultures form an exciting fusion. Everything is “nearly perfect,” he says. Nearly. However, the love of many Americans of firearms and ever recurring shooting rampages like the recent one in the Texan grade school at Uvalde are a part of their new everyday life which the family finds unsettling. The idea that their little daughter could be at a place where such a drama takes place tarnishes their happiness about their new surroundings. “I’m very deeply touched by this,” admits Bastian Wibranek. At the university, too, students and teachers are trained for emergencies and have to undergo behavioural trainings and exercises. Laptops and smartphones are linked via an emergency alert system.
A concern that should make you watchful but which should not dominate your life. So after two years as a university professor, this TU Darmstadt alumnus draws a positive conclusion: “I like it here very much.”