Here Comes Joe

January 20, 2012 |  by  |  Vantage  |  , , ,

Joe Brin Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Editor’s Note: Since early November, the architect, fine artist, and teacher Joseph G. Brin has been energetically writing on Philadelphia topics for Point of View, the Metropolis Magazine blog. He’s profiled industrial designer Andrew Dahlgren and the Philadelphia University textile designer Hitoshi Ujiie. But beyond these traditional Metropolis subjects, Brin has paused his searching eye on a rather wide range of design-infused Philadelphia subjects: comics, water engineering, cars, even Charles Dickens. Yes, and Frank Furness. What’s exciting about this for many of us is that after years outside the consciousness of the wider nation–and world–the once powerhouse Philadelphia is reemerging. Brin, who came here in 1992, and who is perhaps most noted for making colorful prints of rowers and sculling, is quietly, searchingly, helping us find our voice. I sat down with him this week at the Bean Exchange Coffeehouse in Bella Vista.

Nathaniel Popkin: You’re putting Philadelphia on the design map, so to speak.
Joe Brin: In a way we shouldn’t be surprised that Philadelphia is of interest. It’s a major city. Philadelphians don’t always sense that–maybe we don’t always see ourselves the way the rest of the world does. Because I’m not from here I’ve been able to maintain an outsider’s perspective.

NP: And Philly is really your beat?
JB: Everything I write pretty much has Philadelphia in it. She [Metropolis editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy] might be interested in me branching out at some point but in the meantime her interest is that my focus is right here. As a writer it’s a great discipline. The things I take for granted all of sudden I see now as great stories. The writer Gene Weingarten (who set up the experiment with violinist Joshua Bell in the Washington, DC Metro) said ‘a good journalist can make a story out of anything.’ You basically need to be relentlessly curious about the world.

NP: For a design magazine that’s focused on presenting contemporary design solutions, your subjects are much more broadly conceived, and they aren’t necessarily obvious design topics.
JB: You can see design in everything. One thing, to dispel the popular notion: it’s not elitist.

Joseph G. Brin (c) 2012

NP: As an architect, you do preservation?
JB: I like integrating new design into older structures. It brings to the fore the question, what’s the right thing to do when dealing with older structures? There’s no right answer. For the user, the design solution has to be seamless, it has to enhance the user’s life.

You have to be flexible and not be convinced you have all the answers. The design problem is always a moving target. Maybe it comes down to humility. Who knows, maybe you’re making a problem for someone else with your solution. The Parthenon is a good example. For years, they used iron reinforcement bars to hold the stones together. But the iron destroyed the stone it was meant to save.

NP: Plenty of opportunities in Philadelphia to work it out.
JB: To me, my particular impression of Philadelphia is rowing, fine art, and Eakins. I’m living that dream. The big thing about Philadelphia is that it sits on the line between science and art. I love that.

Joseph G. Brin (c) 2012

NP: But Philadelphia isn’t a commercial design center; we have a lot of architects, landscape architects, and design students.
JB: No, but who knows if that’s right? This could be the tip of the iceberg. There’s all these worlds of things going on you don’t know about until you delve into it. It’s like following the breadcrumb trail. I didn’t even know the car guy, Dr. Fred Simeone, existed until a friend told me. But the best thing you can do in the city is walk. If you’re behind the computer, in the car, you’re not going to know. If you have a typical route, take an atypical route. All of a sudden you find a green design store way off the beaten track–a place where the designers are making their own stuff. The point is if you walk if you go off your own beaten path, you’re almost guaranteed to make these discoveries. Something about writing connects you with these possibilities.

I’m excited about the story I posted today, about a friend who is preservationist. What’s exciting is that I thought I knew her until I visited her home–the excitement is in the discovery.

NP: You say you have endless stories to tell.
JB: I started out in photography. I didn’t know what I was going to see each time I would go out. This is very similar, it’s what’s exciting. I see a wisp of something and then I can go learn more.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



1 Comment


  1. I think Joe hit the nail on the head.
    Design is not exclusive to a clutch of architects perched high above the boulevards, but instead it thrives with those who walk and explore, those who dream and create amongst the streets of this great nation. Bravo to Joe Brin for throwing back the cover on, what turns out to be, a ‘not so hidden city’!

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