Designed for an Open Society

Supreme Court justice Stephen G. Breyer speaks about how great public architecture helps shape and reflect our democratic values.

In September, shortly before the Supreme Court reconvened in our nation’s capital, we visited Justice Stephen G. Breyer at his Boston office. Walking around the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse—a dramatic brick building designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners with a curving glass facade turned to the harbor—we were struck by the openness of the space, unusual at a time when ham-fisted security measures corrupt our public realm. With its accessible park, waterfront promenade, and a popular restaurant, the courthouse reflects our open democratic principles.

Prior to being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994, Breyer served as a federal appeals judge in Boston, so the Moakley courthouse is something of a second home for him. As we talked in his warmly lit office, we learned that he and U.S. District Court judge Douglas P. Woodlock were the guiding spirits behind the design and construction of the courthouse; completed in 1998, this seminal project helped spur the creation of the Design Excellence Program at the General Services Administration (GSA).

Their quest to build a place where “the public’s business is conducted” led them in the early 1990s to conduct a search for the right architect. Breyer, the philosopher, and Woodlock, the pragmatist, were the perfect partners to bring design and excellence back to government buildings. The judges took us on a tour of the results, and we saw a building that is respected by those who work there as well as those who pass through it. Here, Justice Breyer talks about the vision of Henry N. Cobb, the importance of public architecture, and how security concerns have compromised the Supreme Court building in Washington.

Susan S. Szenasy: We heard you speak eloquently about architecture in the public realm. Why is it so important?
We all know that famous Churchill quote, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” It’s true. Public buildings are important because they reflect who we are, what kind of government we want, and what type of environment we want our government to operate in. One of the first things Harry Cobb showed us was an image of a seventeenth-century courthouse in Virginia. It had a steeple, a porch, and a courtroom. The porch was located on the town square, where people gather. It’s part of the community. The symbolic steeple also tells you that it’s an important public space. And look at the courtroom: it’s not a shrine or a temple or a palace. It is a place where the public’s business is conducted. You see that instantly. You see that again when you look at nineteenth-century courthouses. Beaux Arts courthouses have four courtrooms opening off a central space, with a dome on the top. Cobb showed us a big courthouse in Los Angeles, something designed in the mid–twentieth century. “What is it?” he asked. “Is it a hospital? A garage? An apartment house? An administration building?” If it looks like a bureaucratic building, people are going to think a judge is a bureaucrat. But judges are people whose job requires them to deal, often face-to-face, with your problem no matter who you are, whether you’re rich or poor, powerful or powerless. It is not a bureaucratic system, and our courthouses should reflect that. That’s a difficult task, because we didn’t have just one courtroom. This wasn’t seventeenth-century Virginia. Our federal district court needed more than twenty courtrooms. So how do you design them in a way that doesn’t say, “This is a bureaucracy!” but tells the public just the opposite?

SSS: You and Judge Woodlock were instrumental in the design of this building, almost acting as the clients. How did that process work?
At the time, Judge Woodlock was a district court judge and I was chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit. We wanted a decent building. Our First Circuit executive, Vincent Flanagan, was interested in architecture, and we worked as a team. First, we had to get the money for the project. The GSA did not want to help us with this. But I had worked as a staff member in the Senate. Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Moakley supported the project. And we were able to get the $220 million necessary to build it. The GSA was not terrifically happy about that, but they then began to cooperate. Vincent found $50,000 in the court’s budget, which allowed us to hire Bill Lacy as an adviser. Bill was secretary to the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. He helped make our project credible and important in the eyes of the architectural community. And he helped us organize a competition. He explained why we should choose the architect, not a particular design. And we had a competition to choose the architect.

Martin C. Pedersen: Do you remember the short list?
The short list included Harry Cobb, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, David Childs, Moshe Safdie, and several others. We told the GSA that we intended to visit other buildings these architects had designed, and we asked them, “Would you like to come?” No. They were not in the habit of doing so. So the judges, Bill Lacy, and Vinnie Flanagan got into Vinnie’s car, and we drove around the northeast and into Canada looking at buildings. We didn’t just look. We talked to people: What’s the best thing about this building? What’s the worst thing? What does it feel like coming to work every day? Eventually Doug and I became members of the final selection committee, along with two or three other people from the GSA. It was a difficult decision—they were all very good architects—but ultimately Harry Cobb and his Virginia courthouse illustration won the day. Harry also showed us a picture of a courthouse in Brussels. It looked like a procession, as if visitors were going up the steps and visiting the palace of a king. “I don’t think that’s what you want,” he said. Then he showed us an image of London’s secular Gothic courthouse on the Strand, done in 1880, where you see lawyers going back and forth across a public space. It tells the user that what is happening is not primarily about the judges. They’re there as part of a process. But that process is not a processional. You’re not asking a king for mercy. You are entitled to justice. We chose Harry, and I think he did a terrific job.

SSS: Let’s talk a little bit about security, because in Washington, D.C., the public realm has been corrupted by it. Can you talk specifically about the Supreme Court, a glorious building? You can no longer walk up those famous steps.
That idea of closing the doors to those who would enter up the steps was originally proposed as a security recommendation. They weren’t insisting. They laid out the pros and cons, and to me the cons far outweighed the pros. Those stairs are a well-known symbol of justice. You walk up those steps and into that building, and Mr. and Ms. Citizen understand immediately that they have a right to petition the highest court. This is their court. Walking up the steps is a symbol of that. The four words across the top are: “Equal justice under law.” That’s come to mean something to every citizen of the United States. Do you know who wrote those words? It was Cass Gilbert, the architect. He went to Chief Justice Hughes, because he needed a certain amount of space, and the words fit perfectly. Ruth Ginsburg and I wrote a dissent, explaining why we thought closing the main doors to entrants was a bad idea. The job of the security people is security. They will leave no stone unturned. But at some point, someone has to take responsibility and say enough is enough. We’ve protected against even small risks; we don’t want to destroy the nature of a building and wall-off the public from their own buildings in order to protect ourselves against risks that, in context, are simply too small to warrant undermining an important public architectural symbol.

SSS: In this age of security and fear, is the public realm gone now in Washington?
No, because we still have the building. I don’t like all those green posts that you see everywhere. They remind me of John Wayne hitching posts brought from Mars. I did not like the American Embassy in Chile, which, when I saw it years ago, reminded me of Fort Knox. If we construct buildings all over the world that look like Fort Knox, we do not tell those who see them who we are as a society. We’re an open society. We should not appear to be otherwise. If we appear to be otherwise, we may become otherwise. That does not mean we can ignore security considerations. But architects are marvelous. They can do all kinds of things. You say to them there is a security issue and they’ll design a solution to address it. They’ll figure out a way to do something of high quality that takes into account security needs, but to bring about that result you need meetings with the architect, the security people, and the government client all in the same room, talking together about how to solve the problem.

MCP: The architect has to be at the table.
Yes! That’s the single most important thing. Somebody says there’s a security problem and the architect can say there’s a way of doing it where we get 99 percent of what we want and it will be much more attractive. If the architect isn’t there, no one else is going to know.

SSS: Before we started, you said architects were reluctant about working in the public realm. What would your advice be to architects building in the public realm?
It’s very difficult. You’re dealing with a lot of different agencies. You’re dealing with an infinite number of rules and regulations. If something goes wrong, it’ll be in the press. If something goes right, no one will ever hear about it. The compensation might be low, so why do it? Because you believe in government. Because you’re an American. Because we cannot have decent public buildings if you don’t help.

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