Co-Living Spaces: Modern Utopia Or Over-Organised Hell?

Hannah Foulds
By Hannah Foulds Last edited 8 months ago
Co-Living Spaces: Modern Utopia Or Over-Organised Hell?

I was invited to spend a night in Old Oak, a co-living space — or as I like to describe it, a hipster commune — containing 550 ‘young professionals’ all under one roof. I was keen, from everything I’d heard about the place, to discover whether it’s really a modern utopia or, in reality, an overpriced, over-organised jail.

The Old Oak is just one part of The Collective co-living spaces. It opened in 2016 in Willesden Junction. The residents are an average age of 25-30, and it’s the largest co-living scheme in the world. Reza Merchant, CEO of The Collective, said: “We offer Londoners a fresh and innovative way of living – it’s also a much needed option in the context of the capital’s housing crisis. We are changing the way people can choose to live.”

I first heard about this place when my parents saw it on the news. It has it’s own gig venue, bar, spa, gym, games room, library, co-working space, and even a cinema — just the kind of place a sociable person seeking a new experience would enjoy. But the more friends I told about this, the more cynical I became: “What? Like a cruise ship for adults?” asked one. “Sounds a bit like the film High Rise” said another. Sounded like a hipster hell on earth to them. So, with one foot in each camp, I decided to try it for size.

Like a Holiday Inn off the M4

At 8pm on a Friday evening, after a 10-minute walk along a pretty desolate road from Willesden Junction station, I arrived at the large building — formerly an office — right on the Grand Union Canal.

Inside the huge entrance area, people were working on sofas and large groups of young people were coming and going. It was buzzing with the sound of laughter and chat, a complete contrast to the desolation outside. The decor was stylish (scandi-style) and dimly-lit, with high ceilings; almost like a hotel. Not a bad first impression.

I was welcomed into the building by Joanna, the community manager, whose remit ranges from organising events and inducting new residents to being a counsellor, friend and peace-maker. Joanna also lives here, and is constantly in demand, even when off-duty. She loves the place — you can tell by her energy — and she really wanted me to like it, too.

Joanna showed me to my en-suite room on the top floor. Rooms up here cost a whopping £230 per week, a price which includes all bills, council tax and cleaning. Other, slightly less expensive rooms on lower floors start from £195 per week. With the pricing system reflecting the location of the rooms, my thoughts were turning to the film High Rise...

The room was smaller than the shoe box I had as a student, but more modern and less smelly. It felt a bit like staying in a Holiday Inn off the M4, particularly with the white-washed decor and the din of heavy traffic in the distance. I only had to spend five minutes in the room to realise it was too small and claustrophobic for me — not good for those nights when I just want to hibernate and watch Netflix alone. And all the ‘stuff’ I’ve collected over the last 33 years of my life (and I travel through life pretty light) would never fit in the room’s storage cupboards. It just wouldn’t be comfortable or practical enough.

Awkward friend-making

After grabbing a slightly overpriced dinner in the restaurant (because my kitchen was the size of a postage stamp), I reluctantly walked into the gig venue on my own.

I loitered at the bar for a while, subtly scanning the room for approachable looking victims who might entertain my awkward conversation-making. I spotted a young woman stood on her own, waiting for friends, so I pounced. Her name was Juliana, she was a fashion designer from Brazil and greeted me with ease, so I instantly relaxed. She was obviously used to this sort of random approach in Old Oak.

Juliana, 30, Brazil

I moved from Brazil alone, and I’ve been living here for just over a month now. It’s easy to live here, you get a lot of support and everyone comes here in the same spirit of making friends and networking.  Living here means my family back at home are a lot less concerned about me, because it’s safe. I don’t think you have to be an extrovert to live here; I’m not. Living here just means it’s a lot easier to make friends and socialise.

My attention was then drawn to a group of women in the middle of the venue. They appeared older than the rest of the crowd and were really letting their hair down. In their mid to late thirties, they each came to Old Oak for a complete lifestyle overhaul, and in the process had made a solid group of friends.

Shauna, 35, Northern Ireland & Victoria, 36, Australia

I moved to London from Northern Ireland 16 years ago, but after a break-up, ended up living alone for some time. I moved to Old Oak when I decided I needed more of a social life. I’ve met some friends for life here, but it does get a bit culty here at times, with everyone living under the same roof.

– Shauna

I don’t regret moving here at all. I use all the facilities and have made loads of friends here. But with 500 people living under one roof, you’re bound to have drama.

– Victoria

If meeting these people showed me anything, it was that many of the residents are happy customers. Undeterred by the hefty costs, these people felt that the transformation this place had enable them to have was priceless. They were all starting afresh here, and this place made it an easy transition.

The 1984 experience

Having received a warm welcome from the residents so far, I plucked up the courage to roam around the building and speak to more people. The thing that struck me most was that, apart from the main entrance, all other public spaces were eerily empty, with no-one in the shared kitchens, spa, library or corridors. Eventually, I stumbled across people in the cinema.

Much to my disappointment, it was more of a projector room with bean bags than a cinema. Draped across the bean bags were four hungover twenty-somethings, three men and one woman, complaining that they couldn’t get the projector working to watch their skateboarding film. I don’t know if it was the hangover or the frustration with the projector speaking, but the most vocal of the group, Willie, became brutally honest about how disappointed he was with Old Oak.

Willie, 20s, London

I’ve lived in squats and communes before, so I immediately bought into the ethos of this place, but the reality is really different. I thought it would be young professionals, but they’re letting everyone in. It’s like creating a home for cats, but letting dogs and llamas move in. And have you seen the cameras? They don’t trust us here.

I have to admit, until Willie said this, I hadn’t seen the cameras around the place. But from that moment on, I started to notice signs saying “Smile you’re on camera” and “If we find food from shared kitchens in your rooms, we’ll remove it” everywhere, and I started to feel a bit uneasy about it myself.

I also started to notice that many of the walls in the public spaces were painted dark grey, and with the long, thin corridors, my feeling of claustrophobia started to worsen.

A view into the community

The next day, I was treated to a free breakfast and a spoken word event in the restaurant area. All residents were offered a free breakfast, and at noon a huge crowd of familiar faces formed an orderly queue along the buffet. I was surprised at how many I recognised from the night before, considering 500 people lived in the building. I felt a bit like Jim Carrey's character in The Truman Show, seeing all the same faces in what’s meant to be a big community. The huge queue also reminded me of the cruise ship analogy my cynical friend had shared the week before.

After listening to the spoken word performance, Joanna was back to give me the official induction she gives all new residents. This place had even more facilities than I’d first realised: an adjoining supermarket, a huge gym, a conference room for parties and town-hall meetings, a ‘disco laundrette’, and a massive roof terrace with an outlook over, ahem, the local bus station. OK, I’m being a bit harsh… you were never going to see a herd of wildebeest galloping past. Despite my snobbery over the view — I am a south Londoner after all — I could imagine myself joining a lively BBQ out there in the summer and watching the sun go down over the local wholesale warehouse.

Benjamin, 20s, Switzerland

I moved in here because I needed to find somewhere to live quickly, and this was the most convenient. I’ve met some good people here, but I had no idea it would be so far out of the centre of London.

Joanna loves working here, but her role takes on the duties of a babysitter. She told me that emotional break-ups, fights and bullying weren’t uncommon. I even saw a guy with two black-eyes walking around the night before, a result of him and another man taking an ‘argument outside’, according to Joanna.

It's clear that this community is a delicate balance that relies on mutual respect (and the staff) to keep things peaceful; and as residents aren’t vetted beforehand, this respect is never guaranteed. Regular town hall meetings, a resident counsellor and persistent signage are all measures to try and retain the harmony.

Am I moving in?

The majority of people I spoke to who live here seem genuinely very happy. The facilities are great, and so much thought and detail has been put into the interior design shared spaces — from the fake grass in the secret garden to the teapots in the Japanese tea room — this place has really been well executed. I could also see that some really solid friendship groups had been formed, and I had a slight twinge of jealousy at times that I was just an outsider visiting for the night. For people with dramatic changes happening in their lives — from divorces to moving country — this place could be a perfect spring-board for a complete change of lifestyle.

But, at the ripe old age of 33, I’m looking for new experiences; in the form of moving forward, not backwards. It felt like I’d be regressing back to student life, rather than embarking on a new phase. And the cameras and staff around only add to this feeling. This isn’t the solution for me.

If you’re interested in moving in (and Joanna tells me there are rooms going), visit https://www.thecollective.co.uk/coliving/old-oak.

All images by Real Lux mapping and photography

Last Updated 12 April 2017