Across the street from the Stadium-Armory Metro Station is perhaps the most carefully-considered school design in DC. St. Coletta of Greater Washington is a non-profit public charter school serving children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Its campus was designed by famed architect Michael Graves, who drew on discussion with and feedback from the school’s leadership and staff.
After touring the school with St. Coletta’s Principal Christie Mandeville and discussing the building’s evolution with CEO Sharon Raimo, the lesson from this school’s careful planning is clear: firms should think more about the needs of students and how schools can facilitate desired behavioral and learning outcomes.
This sounds obvious, but America’s many prison-like schools demonstrate that design concerns tend to focus on cost and control, or give dissimilar public institutions similar treatment.
Located at the corner of Independence Avenue and 19th Street SE, St. Coletta’s occupies a single L-shaped building. From the Independence Avenue front entrance, five individually-colored geometric shapes rise from the ground. Each two-story “school house” is home base for one of the five student groups that form St. Coletta’s 285-person student body.
The whimsical design is a shocking departure from conventional architecture, but its scale and massing relates to the nearby historic armory.
The 19th Street facade is entirely different. The single building looks like a series of conventional house forms painted with faux oversize bricks, integrating the school into the residential neighborhood, whose character is defined by low-rise brick row houses.
At the back of the school is parking and a gated outdoor space where students grow produce and stage outdoor performances.
What binds the different exterior treatments together are their references to childhood and playfulness. Both the unique shapes on Independence Avenue and the giant bricks on 19th Street recall the idea of building blocks. The reference approaches the idea of architecture parlante, or “speaking architecture,” whose form explains function. The exterior’s design extends into the logic of the building’s interior.
After walking through the reception area, students and staff pass through the “village green.” It is a wide main hall, designed to provide room for movement, and allow multiple wheelchairs to pass comfortably. The interior has a loop layout.
The cathedral-like village green is actually blue, many shades of it. Raimo researched color extensively and incorporated her findings into the school’s color palette. One lesson: the bright primary hues classically associated with childhood are too energizing. She favors calming hues, resulting in an interior dominated by light blue, salmon, and butter yellow.
Extending from the main hall are the geometrically shaped areas, or “houses.” Like many traditional schools, each hall houses a group of students of similar ages. St. Coletta’s serves students ages 3-22. Each area is painted like its exterior, allowing students to easily recognize their house.
Every house includes its own elevator. This was a critical decision–staff pushed for more elevators than Graves initially intended because they knew how frustrating it was for crowding to result in lines at elevators in their previous Alexandria school building.
Graves himself was struck by a mysterious illness that left him wheelchair-bound while working on the school. When he visited the completed site, he took the elevators and praised the direction.
Numerous publications covered the completion of the school in 2006, emphasizing its aesthetic qualities: modernity, playfulness, and scale. In other contexts, Graves' designs sometimes have a plastic effect, like the imitation architecture of Disneyworld.
At St. Coletta's, his design sensibility truly coheres with its purpose.
Though Mandeville and Raimo receive regular requests for tours of the building, architecture fans must content themselves with exterior views. The school welcomes neighbors inside for ANC meetings and community events in its gym, but is focused on its mission to serve students and adults with special needs.
The building’s most significant triumph is its nearly singular focus on how architecture can serve students. From kitchens to basketball hoops to sinks, nearly everything in the school can be adapted to accommodate those in wheelchairs and those who stand. The village green minimizes hiding spaces, so students can’t slip away. Walls are brightly–but not distractingly–decorated.
The school is outfitted with all of the elements one finds in any other school–a gym, cafeteria, classrooms, and outdoor play spaces–as well as a hydrotherapy room, physical therapy centers, and a nursing facility.
Mandeville explained that the school primarily serves students with intellectual disabilities, autism, and multiple disabilities. Graduating students earn a high school certificate.
There are tangible results from this sensitive design. The new school’s “quiet rooms” have seen a dramatic reduction in use. There were no out-of-school suspensions last year, although this number was always low. The larger space facilitates safer movement throughout the school.
While visiting a class of senior students getting ready to prepare a meal, one teenager introduced himself: “We’re making French toast today! If you come back, I can give you a tour.”
Younger students in the art studio were focused on their first project of the year, but greeted Mandeville familiarly when she entered the room.
Mandeville is quick to credit St. Coletta’s excellent staff for these victories, but she and Raimo acknowledge that the space plays a role. Would students at traditional schools benefit from similarly thoughtful treatment? “Of course!” they agree.