Justice Breyer Panel at Moakley Courthouse

A few weeks ago the Moakley Courthouse held a panel event in commemoration of its 20 year anniversary. The Moakley Courthouse was completed in 1998 when the Seaport District was, in some senses, bleak. Now, on the courthouse’s 20th anniversary, it sits at the beginning of one of the most up-and-coming and bustling parts of Boston. It houses both the federal district court and the court of appeals courtrooms, along with chambers for each judge, offices for US Attorneys, ¬†and various community spaces.

For the building’s anniversary, the courthouse’s Discovering Justice team brought in a superstar panel to talk about the building’s conception, design, and construction. Included on the panel was Justice Breyer, renowned architect of the courthouse Henry Cobb, and other important judges and architects. The event was open to the public, but I got word of it since I’m currently externing at the court of appeals. I was able to take some time out of my day to go to the panel discussion.

First, to get the important thing out in the open: being in the same room as Supreme Court Justice Breyer was wicked cool. He graduated from a Massachusetts high school (one town over from mine!) and sat on the 1st Circuit before being called up to the Supreme Court. He was also, as I learned, instrumental in the design and construction of Moakley Courthouse. Seeing him in person and listening to him speak candidly about something else he was passionate about besides the law was an opportunity of a lifetime.

As far as the actual panel went, it was beyond fascinating. I have a side-interest in Architecture, and always thought that if I was any better at math I’d have pursued architecture as a career. Clearly, as I’m writing to you from my law school blog, I quickly learned I was better with words than with numbers and scrapped the architecture career. It was still riveting to hear about how Justice Breyer, then-Chief-Judge-Breyer of the 1st Circuit, teamed up with his colleague Judge Woodlock to oversee and implement the building of the new courthouse.

They ended up choosing famed locally born architect Henry Cobb after a vigorous vetting process. Both Justice Breyer and Judge Woodlock were particular in their vision for the courthouse and needed the right man for the job; as it turns out, the right man was Henry Cobb, who had constructed many famous Boston buildings like the John Hancock tower but had never worked on a courthouse before.

While Cobb had not worked on a courthouse before, he had the same vision as Justice Breyer and Judge Woodlock: to create a space that engaged the community and emphasized the importance of allowing the public the ability to think of the space as “theirs.” They insisted on things like multiple entrances (almost unheard of for federal courthouses, then and now) so that there would be access from both the front and the sea-side green space; they created a design of brick to emphasize structural stability and craftsmanship but also a used a glass facade to showcase transparency; they employed ancient Roman styles of placing important quotes around the building to ingratiate the notions of justice and law into the actual structure of the courthouse itself.

To be completely honest, I was shocked. I had no idea how intricate the planning of the building was; I had no concept of how every single detail was discussed and integral to the three men powering the entire design. I especially enjoyed listening to Henry Cobb speak. Just as judges and Justices use the opinions they write as a form of art, if you will, Henry Cobb views each of his building designs, including Moakley, as a form of art for the public. How he described each physical aspect of the building that he chose and what he aimed to elicit from incorporating that aspect was simply incredible. I’m very grateful that I was able to expand both my appreciation of the courthouse and appreciation of every building around me after attending this event.

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