In Conversation: Justice Stephen Breyer and Henry N. Cobb

A conversation centering on the design process of Moakley Courthouse and the civic importance and symbolic power of architecture for the judiciary

December 15, 2015

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and architect Henry N. Cobb met when Cobb and his firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, were commissioned in 1991 to design a new federal courthouse on Fan Pier, at the edge of Boston Harbor. Justice Breyer, then Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, was lead client for the project and was deeply engaged in the development of the courthouse. The two launched a sustained dialogue about how to achieve three goals set by Breyer that convey profoundly important messages about the role of the judiciary in a democratic society: the project should communicate that the site of the courthouse belongs to the public; that the courthouse itself belongs to the public; and that the courts are equally open to all. The John Joseph Moakley Courthouse, which opened in 1998, won a Presidential Design Award in 2000.

To set the background for their conversation, which took place in The Great Hall of The Cooper Union on December 18, 2015, Cobb discusses the design of the federal courthouse that brought Justice Breyer and Cobb together. He reflects on how Breyer “was the passionately engaged user-client and eloquent advocate in the cause of architecture whose words and actions helped bring that program into being.” After Cobb’s presentation, Justice Breyer takes the stage with Cobb where the two reflect on the courthouse’s design process and the civic importance and symbolic power of architecture for the judiciary.

Recorded: December 18, 2015