We snuck in for a tour of a new co-living space in Willesden Green, where for £1000 a month, you can live in a weird, comfy fantasy world. In a city where people feel priced out, isolated and directionless, Co-Living offers an antidote – a cosy...
He's keeping me waiting. They sent me an email confirming my appointment with a smiling picture of my guide in it. I recognise him across the lobby, chatting with someone else. I'm in a deep velvet armchair, softly glowing bulbs of different sizes hang from the ceiling. There's an immaculate grand piano but a playlist thrums from concealed speakers so you couldn't play it. The man behind the reception desk looks bored. Above him an enormous sign reads 'Co-Living Old Oak -- Welcome Home!'
The guy I'm here to meet walks over to me and offers his hand. "So," he asks, "why are you interested in Co-Living?" I'm not remotely interested in Co-Living, but I'm very interested in having a nose around inside the first residential block built by trendy startup property developers The Collective. They proclaim their monolithic building in Willesden Junction to be 'London's first co-living community'.
They offer it up as a possible solution for London's housing crisis. Over 500 rooms, a spa, cinema, bar and restaurant, a gym, games room and roof terrace. A home for people of all ages who are sick of damp, cramped house shares and dodgy landlords. A new mode of living: accommodation, laundry, tax and wifi bundled into one easy payment of about £1000 a month. Utopia for young, renting professionals. It's student halls meets Shoreditch House.
I follow my guide through the lobby, past the entrance to The Common -- the onsite bar -- and into the lifts. My guide lives here, subbing his rent by showing a few prospective tenants around every now and again. He says he likes it. The people are great. "A lot of them work in digital marketing" he says. "Oh cool" I reply.
We walk into a long, blindingly lit room with a checkerboard-panelled floor and Space Invaders wallpaper. It has the clinical tang of a hospital waiting area, even though it's meant to be a games room. A four-foot high set of Giant Connect 4 sits in one corner, an enormous flatscreen telly pinned to the wall in another. "As you can see, it's well used" my guide grins, fingering a large rip on the pool table. It's deserted.
Next I'm shown a single room with an ensuite bathroom. It's like my old student halls, only cleaner and with more angles. The bed by the window has one of those peculiar-sized mattresses, too small for two people to comfortably sleep in, just big enough for one and their sense of loneliness. Another flat-screen rests at the foot of the bed.
The room itself is modern and unremarkable. There's hobs and a sink by the door. I'm informed not all rooms have them and hob-less tenants must prepare meals in one of the communal kitchens on each floor. We poke our heads into a windowless, cabinet-lined room, furnished with several ovens and fridges. A group of men are enjoying an Old El Paso fajita kit for dinner. They look sheepishly at us. We leave. The flat's other communal area is an awkwardly shaped space dominated by a wide, plastic-topped bar. A small bench is cut into one side of it, on which two young women are sitting eating pasta and ignoring Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is playing quietly on another flatscreen. There's nowhere in this living room where you can sit facing another person.
I'm shown a cinema, in which tenants hold movie nights, and a luxurious-looking spa comprised of a sauna and massage tables. The library is decorated with fake bookshelf wallpaper. I ask my guide if he ever uses these facilities. "Not so much" he replies. "We watch the football in the cinema sometimes." It's the other tenants, he says, that are really the best thing about Co-Living. "I've met so many great people here, loads with different jobs, different ages. Everyone's here because they want to meet new people."
That's what The Collective is really selling here. Belonging. Their Facebook advert reads 'Be part of something.' Development projects like Co-Living are a symptom of a city failing young people. A city without rent controls or easily available social housing. A city of closing clubs, alternative venues and libraries. A city where people feel priced out, isolated and directionless. Co-Living supposedly offers an antidote: a cosy, enclosed world filled with thrusting new friends and electronic distractions, warm and bustling with activity, all removed from the grime of the street. Sound familiar? Not so long ago these were once the promises of a welfare state committed to moving families out of dilapidated slum townhouses and into towering cities in the sky.
Except of course, those families weren't expected to pay over £1000 a month to a private company for a room on an industrial estate in Zone 3. It's not just that Co-Living is overpriced, or that it's interior design is tacky and contrived -- it's that its marketing spiel deliberately pillages the language of progressive, alternative modes of living, in order to promote an exclusive housing development.
'Collective', 'co-living', 'common'. These words have real meaning. They imply ownership, responsibility, cooperation, freedom. They come weighed down with historical connotations -- from forced land enclosures to the counterculture movement. This project is not 'a collective'. The spaces are not 'common'. Not even vaguely communal. If your rent payment includes a fortnightly cleaning service to tidy up after you, then you are not 'co-living'. This development proposes a fun, creative, communal experience, but like an Old El Paso fajita kit, it's tasteless, artificial, and lacking in real meat.
It's the same ethos that sees beanbags and ping pong tables installed in offices even though employees are too busy to use them, that proclaims new casual 'co-working' workspaces as crucibles for collaboration and creative cross-pollination when they are in fact full of freelancers sweating into laptops. These places are attempting to dismantle the barriers between life and work. They trick us into thinking they are the same thing, so we keep working even when we've gone home, replying to emails from our bosses through the evenings and weekends because there is emergency digital marketing to be done.
People are attracted to these inauthentic capitalist shadows of progressive spaces because the genuine progressive spaces in London are now almost nonexistent. The criminalisation of residential squatting in 2012 effectively ended the possibility of young people starting cohabitation projects in the city without serious financial investment. The tenants of property guardian-run buildings face eviction if they are caught socialising in their homes, let alone using these spaces for wider community engagement.
This new phenomenon is not exclusive to London. In the US, similar co-living developments designed to cater for IT individuals are helping to fuel the cultural bleaching of San Francisco, whilst downmarket projects like PodShare in LA allow people to rent a bunk in a shared dorm, indefinitely, for $40 a night. In the UK, Co-Living Old Oak is simply the first to finish construction. Not only do developers The Collective have several more properties in the pipeline, but property investment company Moda Living have similar projects lined up in Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Edinburgh. Moda's future tenants will enjoy "market leading brand collaborations with renowned appliance, media and lifestyle companies," which I assume means private companies literally walking into people's home and attempting to flog them stuff in their living rooms. What effect will these inward-facing buildings have on our neighbourhoods? Surely these exclusive, sequestered communities will do little to help bring diverse areas together. Why visit the dingy high street when there's a coffee shop, Whole Foods, and a Supreme store in the lobby of your building?
Earlier this year an actual collective; Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (ANAL) were forcibly removed from their squat inside a £15m central London mansion which is owned and left unoccupied by Russian oligarch Andrey Goncharenko. The group had been using the building, in part, as a homeless shelter; homeless numbers have doubled in the last five years, up 188% in the last ten. House prices, it feels, are on a similar trajectory. They rise but wages stay the same. You're two paychecks away from being on the street and you'd need at least two paychecks a month to even be able to start thinking about buying somewhere.
Tour at an end, I bid my guide goodbye and emerge out into the drizzly Willesden night, cross the canal and begin the desolate walk back to the tube station. The road is dank and miserable-looking, the dimly-lit houses old and unloved. A greasy pavement reflects the orange-grey night sky above. Behind me, the gleaming Co-Living wants me to forget that cities are dirty, messy, chaotic, diverse, brilliant, dangerous, wonderful places. Instead, it offers a manicured, mollycoddled simulacrum of London, and seeks to transform our lives and homes into unreal vessels for the flow of capital.
There is a pivotal moment in High Rise in which it dawns on Laing that the tower block he calls home is "an environment built, not for man, but for man's absence." Co-Living too. These are buildings designed not for people, but for people's cash.
Text Tom Harrad