WASHINGTON — True, he helped devise a suitable design for the federal courthouse in Boston several years ago. And he did write the foreword to a book called “Celebrating the Courthouse: A Guide for Architects, Their Clients, and the Public.”
But sitting in the marble behemoth of the United States Supreme Court recently, sunlight bouncing off the books that line his chambers, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said it would be easy to make too much of the fact that he has become a juror on the panel that awards the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s greatest honor.
“I’d be very surprised if people think I’m some kind of great architect or architectural expert,” he said. “I am what I am.”
Justice Breyer, 73, has never studied architecture. He does not bandy about terms like “cantilever” or “curtain wall,” and he is more than a little understated when asked to describe the style of his house in Massachusetts.
“My home architecturally?” he said. “It’s where I live with my family. I like it. It’s attractive. It’s an old house in Cambridge. It’s very nice. I love living there. It’s very comfortable.”
But Pritzker officials said the justice’s intelligence, disposition and enthusiasm for architecture made him a good choice to serve on a panel that hopes to expand the breadth of its jurors’ experience.
“We felt there should be distinguished people from walks of life other than architecture,” said Lord Palumbo, the Pritzker’s chairman.
It is rare for the public to get much more than a fleeting glimpse of the private passions of the people who serve on the nation’s highest court. You may hear about Antonin Scalia’s love of opera or David H. Souter’s mountain climbing. But the justices typically go to some lengths to protect their privacy, in part to prevent their extracurricular interests from being seized upon as evidence of bias or predisposition.
Justice Breyer, who has one of the higher profiles on the court, is now stepping a bit further into the public eye by serving on an arts jury that will not only showcase his longstanding interest in buildings but also make use of his well-honed powers to deliberate and decide. Few justices have ever taken on a similar role, and the news media were quick to notice.
“The Justice Is on the Jury,” read a headline in The Architect’s Newspaper.
“Breyer has something new to judge,” The Chicago Tribune offered.
The panel the justice has joined is hardly a garden of shrinking violets. It has featured over the years star architects like Frank Gehryand Renzo Piano and corporate chieftains like Thomas J. Watson of I.B.M. and Giovanni Agnelli of Fiat. The current crop of eight consists of major critics, historians and practicing architects including Zaha Hadid, a former Pritzker winner who was appointed to the jury with Justice Breyer last month.
Still, there is something about deliberating alongside a man who quotes 19th-century French political writers and can expound on the dangers of originalism in Constitutional interpretation.
“His is a name to conjure with,” Lord Palumbo said.
Justice Breyer, who was appointed to the court by President Clinton in 1994, said there is no danger of him dominating his fellow Pritzker jurors. “They won’t defer to my opinion,” he said. “I’m fairly used to what I would call listening.”
Mr. Gehry predicted the panel will benefit from Justice Breyer’s sense of calm. “People have biases,” he said. “And having a guy like that, who is used to that kind of negotiation and discussion, could be very interesting. He’s a real straight shooter.”
Justice Breyer said he hopes to advocate for high-quality design in government buildings.
“The point of all these projects is to say to people — through the architecture of the building and the construction of the building and the use of the building — that the government is you,” he said. “There isn’t a wall of separation. It’s very important to break the idea of the wall down because otherwise people think this is a foreign entity. But this is a democracy, and the government is the community.”
“The wonderful thing about a building is, it can’t do that by itself, but it can help,” Justice Breyer added. “Architecture can help.”
He singled out buildings he admired, like the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in New York, designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Supreme Court. “The bench is at the same level as the speaker,” Justice Breyer said. “It looks like somebody’s sitting room. And what that did is promote a conversation. And you want a conversation between the judges and the lawyers. A conversation is what appellate courts need, because out of that conversation you grow a better decision.”
He called the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris “one of the great architecture and artistic monuments in the world.”
He praised the “old, secular, Gothic architecture” of the High Court of Justice in the Strand in London. “It was built in the 19th century, but it looks like a marketplace,” he said. “You see the lawyers crossing the big floor, you see them milling with their clients.”
And while City Hall in San Francisco, where he grew up, is “perhaps not at the top of the list,” Justice Breyer said. “It did affect me because it’s open, it’s Beaux-Arts, it’s attractive. You see history in architecture.”
As for the Supreme Court building, he said that what he likes best are the front steps that lead to the engraved statement “Equal justice under law.” “People come up, and they see that,” Justice Breyer said, “and it’s a symbol of justice in America.” (He’s not a fan of the recent security decision to have visitors use a side entrance.)
The Boston courthouse overlooking the harbor, though, is Justice Breyer’s baby. He and Judge Douglas P. Woodlock of the federal district court there took it on in the 1990s, when Justice Breyer was an appellate judge there. He threw himself into the project, studying courthouses, interviewing architects, traveling to see their work. (His team ultimately settled on Henry N. Cobb, of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.)
“What he wanted was to restore the idea of the courthouse as a public building,” Mr. Cobb said. “Every aspect of the design reflects his commitment to that idea.”
The resulting John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse has become a template for projects around the world.
“The theme of those courthouses is a kind of openness — trying to invite the public in, not just for judicial purposes,” Justice Breyer said.
His three-year Pritzker term will include three meetings a year: two when the jurors deliberate and one when they fly around the world looking at buildings to help inform their decisions.
Of his service, he said, “If it attracts some notice within the government and makes the government more aware that good architecture can be helpful with respect to government buildings, so much the better.”
“And if it interests the architecture community, so much the better,” he continued. “As to whether it’s successful or not — my participation — I don’t know. That will be for others to say.”