AD Classics: St. Coletta School / Michael Graves

© Michael Graves

A bright and fun building that stands out against it’s surroundings, Michael Graves is well respected for his design that brought hope to the families of children with disabilities in and surrounding areas.

St. Coletta was founded in 1959 by a couple with a child diagnosed with Down Syndrome. As they had history dealing with the struggle of finding an educational system that worked for their child, they decided to establish the school as a special education charter which serviced and educated children with severe or multiple disabilities. The bright colors and simple forms make it very fitting for the people that the building serves, as it is fun, playful and inviting.

More on after the break.

© Michael Graves

The 99,000-square-footage of the plot was built upwards in a series of two-story “school houses” which attach to a double-height central hall with a skylight, referred to as “village green.” The area also includes a community room and full court gymnasium for the students. This large layout wonderfully accommodates all of the programs run by the institution, including an adult day program.

The total cost came to about $32 million, which was appointed from congressional appropriations, a bond secured by Bank of America, and a capital fundraising campaign. What stuns the proud parents, neighbors, and the general population the most is the upscale designs of every aspect of the building.

© Michael Graves

Students range in age from 3 to 22, and are housed according to age in one of the five individual “houses.”

In a city that seemed insensitive to the needs of the children initially, the parents were so thrilled to see a gymnasium suitable for a college team, and a kitchen suitable for a fancy restaurant. The building also includes a nursing facility, physical therapy centers and a hydrotherapy room. There are studios for art and music, and sensory rooms designed to stimulate students with lights, colors and sounds.

The playfulness of light in the central atrium with arched ceilings and multiple skylights add to the experience, as rooms are brightened and colors are enhanced by the flow of natural light.

© Michael Graves

Ironically enough, while in the early planning stages of the project, Graves grew sick with a mysterious illness that left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. John Diebboll, Graves partner in the project, said that this gave Graves an even greater insight into the needs of the population.

“We have always been drawn to projects for children,” wrote Diebboll. “However, nothing in our lives had prepared us for the day that Michael Graves and I first visited the St. Coletta School in Alexandria. We experienced an immediate connection with the students and staff and realized that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime challenge and an extraordinary opportunity.”

Architect: Michael Graves
Location: Washington D.C., United States
Project Year:
References and Photographs:
Michael Graves, St. Coletta School

Cite: Sveiven, Megan. "AD Classics: St. Coletta School / Michael Graves" 15 Nov 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>
  • Matthius

    Given the circumstances of the project I would say that the design is fittingly simple and inviting, but the design is so visually atrocious….

  • Matthew

    In most instances I hate Michael Graves’ design. It’s cartoonish and garish. But in this case, it works. In just a few instances it seems that his language coincides with the program…

  • Sammy J

    This is the first Graves project I’ve seen that I didn’t instantly dislike! And I suspect that its playful forms and colours could be appealing to the intended clients.

  • Peter

    my day is officially ruined!

  • kioku

    Social disaster !!!

  • nofutureachitect

    i could never have built that , but i love it..
    it looks loose, relaxed and random and then you check those well-balanced plans.. not too schematic, not too circumstantial.

    i like it when the guy doesn’t necessarily throw all his creative angst into your face

    so why bother with the post-modern look? this building is better architecture than quite a lot of modern-looking buildings we see around.

    as for the social disaster, i don’t get it..

  • Brian

    Postmodern architecture is back? I would never had guessed that this way of building would get a come-back in real world. It belongs in Disney World…

  • ey

    Difficult to understand. But easy if one knows work of Asplund and Plecnik, even Kahn.
    POMO is responsible for some of the greatest public buildings, but was terrible at almost everything else.
    I just like the freedom of this kind of architecture.

  • amian

    Post Modernism is like pretty much everything else in the world: some is good, some is bad.

    In my opinion this is good. The plans are legible and complex with what looks like plenty of functional spaces and nice public spaces. The exterior is playful but has enough formality to be appropriate for a school.

    Given so much contemporary educational architecture is blandly crisp (read inexpensive) with pasted on details at odd scales this is hugely better.

    Personally, I would take a colorfully minimal Swiss school any day but I certainly don’t object to this one.

  • Norzam Darmin

    Micheal Graves approach to design often goes against the normal perception of the mass of what building should be. By form this building is not aesthetically pleasing but it’s unique and it’s deviate from the normal thought. The daring use of colour help to rejuvenate the life of its cccupant, making it cheerful and energetic.

  • Steve

    Thats a beautiful building, playful and whimsical, perfect for the kids. I especially like the use of the roof tiles in a vertical wall application, an interesting way to achieve the look.