I lived in the world’s largest grown-up halls for a week
It was sinister af
Do you remember your first week in halls? Full of giddy optimism at what uni would hold, you hauled your fresh-from-Ikea pots and pans up the stairs while your dad made awkward small talk with the girls in your flat and your mum tried to fight back the tears. You shut the door, sat on the thin, worn mattress and felt truly alone. For the rest of the year, the friends you made and the experiences you had were underpinned by the fact you lived in a shithole. There was no privacy, never any clean glasses and a warden ready to crack down on your vibes the second it turned 11:01pm.
Now imagine living in the same place four years later, when you’re a real adult with a real job. That’s what The Collective is. In a pre-gentrification industrial estate near North Acton sits Old Oak, a co-living space for those “who want to make the most of London life”, a hermetically sealed tower block where London’s best and brightest spend their workaholic twenties.
You don’t worry about bills, council tax, dealing with landlords or even making your own friends. The Collective will provide all. Having been hailed as the future for grads wanting to live in London, an alternative to the damp houseshares of Clapham or Hackney, I decided to brave the impenetrable Millenial! fortress to see if adult halls could hold the answer to the housing shortage gripping London by the balls.
The lobby has the feel of an upmarket hotel in any European city. Bare lightbulbs hang from the ceiling in the sort of contrived hipster way we’ve come to know and detest and a vintage cinema sign proudly proclaims “Welcome Home!”. So far, so tolerable. On check-in, the receptionist hands you a contactless card that will now dictate your life. Giving you access into your flat, your bedroom, the lift and the myriad themed rooms dotted all over the 600 bedroom tower block, it feels like far more than a normal hotel room key. As I ascended in the clinically clean lift, it felt like the sort of place you’d maybe want to spend an evening because there was nowhere else, a stopgap while waiting for a connection from Gatwick.
This feeling didn’t leave me when I stepped into the room. After tapping in to the “twodio”, you walk into a kitchenette with a lonely hotplate, a breakfast bar facing a blank wall and a mini fridge with no complimentary miniatures. Tapping in again to the bedroom, I had a Vietnam-style flashback to first year. It was all the same.
Everything from the bathroom made of a single piece of plastic, to the shelving crammed into every available crevice reminded me of predrinking and shooting for forty percent. At uni you can tolerate halls because you have to, but in London, when you’re paying £1100 a month, you expect a little bit more for your money.
The next day, after a fitful sleep on the thin mattress and Collective provided sheets, I took a walk around. The map outside the lift promised a tea room, French bistro, an English pub and other irritating oddities including a games room and full-sized sauna. It turned out to be The Collective’s idea of a sick joke. The “bistro” in question was in fact a fairly budget dining room, with the slightest hint of a French theme. It was the same on the other floors, promising a lot and delivering very little.
But the eeriest thing about it all wasn’t the contrived theming or the completely redundant spa, it was how deserted everywhere was. The corridors were always bizarrely empty, save for the odd tenant ferrying a stir fry back from the communal kitchen to their rooms. It felt like the “community feel” the management was gunning for was severely lacking.
Even the library was a waste of time. Holding about 40 books which varied in tone from a Russian Orthodox Bible to Piers Morgan’s autobiography, the rest of the room had book wallpaper and a fake fireplace to fake relax by. The only redeeming feature was the cinema room. The floor littered with bean bags facing a 100 inch screen, it felt like the only whimsy room that I’d actually think about using. When I stopped by, there was a pack of lads watching the Formula One. It looked like they might be there a while. It’s no wonder The Collective overlords will give you a £50 grant if you say you’re having a party, they’re desperate for it to appear fun.
When I left for work on Monday morning, I took a look at the other commuters flowing out the doors. They weren’t exactly the type of people you could imagine house-hunting for a shared three-bed in Dalston. They were all older, all techy, and looked like they went to uni before I could walk. They wore Ted Baker shirts with brown shoes and were probably about as far as away from The Shoreditch set as you can get while still being on the Central Line.
It was these same people that I saw a couple of days later at The Collective’s live music night. A music night that would not be out of place in an SU somewhere depressing like Warwick, a rapidly aging three-piece band belted out Bon Jovi, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bruce Springsteen reading lyrics from their iPad. A hit parade devoured by the crowd, whose average age hovered somewhere between your parents and your slightly cool younger uncle who wears T-shirts with campervans on.
This freshers night equivalent had all your favourite uni stereotypes. The rugby lads were tradesmen in their work polos, the edgy kids were tech entrepreneurs smoking rollies by the canal and the girls who were a bit too drunk were more hen do than Freshers’ Week.
The music stopped promptly at 11, reminding everyone that their freedom to enjoy themselves was always at the whim of The Collective. The Collective decides when you have fun, The Collective says when your sheets get changed, you belong to The Collective.
As the week wore on, and The Collectives’s idea of forced fun ground me down further. I started to question the motives of the people who actually lived here full time. There was nothing to do for miles around, they were paying well over the odds to live in a place that a had less personality than a travelodge on the M1, it just didn’t make sense.
Uni halls worked. They were the great unifier, a baptism of fire into the real world. But the whole point is that you’re surrounded by fun people, who are just like you. You don’t have anything important to do and nowhere to be so you can take the time to get to know people. The Collective is trying to fit a uni-level of socialising around a 9-5 job, there just isn’t enough time.
The company’s CEO tried to explain why people would chose his soulless mega-flats instead of a traditional house-share. He said of millennials: “ultimately experiences are what people value above material possessions”.
But when you’re paying over a grand a month for neither, I’d take a leaky flat in Battersea any day.