Architect Michael Caton thrives on challenge. Over the course of his career he’s worked on projects as diverse as UNHCR refugee settlements; a sprawling hotel built on a racetrack in Abu Dahbi; and an office-tower façade in Bangalore.
“Gnarly, challenging things excite me,” said the 33-year-old native Brooklynite, who is about to celebrate his first WeWork anniversary as the architecture discipline lead for Powered by We (he’s also a professor at Pratt, his alma mater). “I’m willing to tackle any design project, and that includes organizational problems.”
There is one thing he wants to make clear, though: He and his team are not a design firm.
“Essentially, our big group of architects, designers, and engineers uses what we developed ourselves at WeWork as a platform and bring that to other enterprises and large companies,” he explains. “Companies are recognizing the value of mobility, collaboration, and environments that are conducive to those [things]. There’s recognition that there needs to be some adaptation to [both] spaces and employee policy to really maximize the efficacy of employees.”
Caton’s team breaks down any project into three components: discovery, strategy, and solution—with the first one being the most crucial. “The discovery phase is really about engaging with the client and stakeholders to make sure that we’re framing the correct problem,” says Caton. “Because there’s nothing more tragic than finding the right answer to the wrong question.”
In his role, he helps companies re-create the vibrant communities that the WeWork original spaces helped foster without the worry of office layouts and space distribution. “The decisions that we make on the design have very direct community implications,” Caton says. He and his team create around concepts such as mobility, connectivity, and “hide and seek”: “How can you hide as effectively as you need to, but also, how can you seek and find someone as quickly as you need to, to collaborate and do something together?”
Caton points to the giant blue couch flanked by two narrow sets of stairs on the mezzanine level of WeWork’s Chelsea HQ as a good example of this philosophy. “This is a place to meet and gather,” he explains. “Our stairs are designed to be as narrow as they can be by New York City building code [so that] you can’t absentmindedly walk by other people—you have to engage with them, acknowledge their presence.”
If Caton sounds sure of himself and his work, he is first to admit he’s seen his share of failures. His entry into Pratt’s architecture program was, in his words, a rude awakening to the reality of adult life: In trying to balance his passion for basketball, classes, and homework, he failed out. With perseverance, he got back in the following semester.
“It was incredibly valuable to have such an epic failure happening at the very beginning of my education,” he says. “I knew what the bottom looked like.” It’s a story he shares with his first-year students at Pratt. “Invariably, in the semester, you reach a point where students hit that wall, and when they do, then I tell them my whole story,” he says. “I find that relating my story is really effective and inspiring.”
Caton used his setback as a constant springboard for improvement—a philosophy he still sticks to. At WeWork, he says, “I’m going to tell my manager in a cheeky way that I am here for the growing pains.”