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Stephen Breyer’s surprising side hustle? Judging the world’s best architects

The retiring Supreme Court justice is also one of the jurors of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. It makes sense when you talk to his colleagues.

Stephen Breyer’s surprising side hustle? Judging the world’s best architects
[Photo: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Getty Images, Jesse Collins/Unsplash]

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer may be leaving the nation’s top court, but his days of making high-profile decisions are not over yet. Breyer will reportedly remain one of the jurors of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, regarded as the highest honor in the field.

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Breyer has served on the Pritzker jury since 2011. Eunice Kim, a spokesperson for the Pritzker Prize, said in an email that Breyer will remain “an active and valued member of the Pritzker Prize jury.”

As part of a jury that can range in number from five to nine members, Breyer has helped select more than a dozen architects and teams to receive the $100,000 prize, including Shigeru Ban, Balkrishna Doshi, and 2021 laureates Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal.

Breyer, who has no training in architecture, may seem an unlikely arbiter of architectural prowess. But according to one fellow juror, Breyer’s experience as a Supreme Court justice makes him an ideal juror of the slightly less significant question of deciding who qualifies as the world’s best architect.

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Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a Pritzker juror since 2019, says that despite the demands of his “very meaningful day job,” Breyer has been a thoughtful juror. Though it may be unexpected for someone entrenched in the interpretation of constitutional law, Breyer has a sophisticated appreciation of architecture. “He has a very, very keen eye, not only for buildings but also for their context, their community, and within the building itself its composition and materiality. He sees works of architecture holistically,” Berke says. “He’s an extremely well-informed layperson.”

The Pritzker jury often includes non-architects, including Brazilian ambassador to India André Corrêa do Lago, who currently serves on the jury, and the Indian industrialist Ratan N. Tata, who was on the jury from 2014 to 2019. Breyer even served as the jury’s chair for two years, in 2019 and 2020, when the jury selected Arata Isozaki and the team of Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara as the two years’ respective laureates. “His devotion to civic-minded architecture underscores the mission of the prize and his unparalleled ability to guide a group deliberation is essential in creating a unified voice within this diverse and international panel of jurors,” Tom Pritzker, chairman of the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the Pritzker Prize, said at the time.

Berke says Breyer’s experience as a judge has flavored his architectural leanings, and his sense for what architecture can do. “This probably sounds obvious, but he has a particular interest in civic buildings,” Berke says. “You can tell he’s paid attention over many, many years.”

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In the early 1990s, back when he was chief judge of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Breyer was one of two judges advising the design of a federal courthouse and its surrounding garden on Boston’s waterfront. He personally interviewed the architects applying for the project, according to a profile published in The Washington Post ahead of his 1994 confirmation to the Supreme Court. That led to the hiring of architect Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners to design the courthouse, and landscape architect Laurie Olin to design the garden and public space around the building.

Designed in the wary years surrounding the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed, and opening in 1998, a year when two U.S. embassies in Africa saw their own deadly bombings, security became a primary design consideration of the General Services Administration, which is in charge of federal buildings. A 1999 New York Times review of the $228 million courthouse said it fell short of the government’s architectural and public-access values, calling it “emblematic of a G.S.A. program in which public promise is trumped by a fixation with surveillance and security.”

Since being appointed to the Supreme Court, Breyer’s architectural proclivities seem to have been limited to his service on the Pritzker jury. (Questions submitted to Breyer were not answered by the time of publication.) Berke says his judicial experience has been critical in helping the panel of jurors come to their annual consensus on who should be named one of the world’s best architects. Unlike the Supreme Court, the Pritzker jury’s decision is always unanimous.

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“He’s extremely clear and articulate in voicing his own opinions, but more importantly, he is able to help the rest of the jury weigh our ideas,” Berke says. “He’s clearly the most qualified person to be a juror, broadly speaking, of anything.”

He’s also good company, “whether one’s talking about architecture or baseball,” Berke says. “He is what you would imagine your most favorite uncle would be like in a dream world.”

The 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate will be announced this spring. The jury’s deliberations will begin soon. Now that Breyer is leaving his “very meaningful day job” shaping and interpreting the law of the United States, he’ll perhaps have more time to think about the almost equally important question of what makes good architecture.

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