The roaming empire

Jonathan Beckman in The Economist:

HomeAt cocktail hour on a mild October evening, as thousands of Londoners are wadded face to armpit on their tube journeys home, half a dozen residents of a handsome, brown-brick townhouse in Chelsea have gathered in the basement kitchen. Jonny Sywulak, a 34-year-old software engineer and former bartender, is standing behind a balustrade of vodka bottles, demonstrating how to concoct a Bloody Mary. Each glass is served with an elaborate garnish – a slice of lime, a slice of lemon, an olive, a nub of blue cheese and a shrimp – that slumps against the rim like a half-felled totem pole. “I’m just following instructions here,” says Isa Landaeta, the house’s community manager. “I’ve never made a garnish like this before. Also, do olives really taste good with shrimp?”

Though most of the participants barely know each other, the atmosphere is congenial and relaxed. Amira Yousif, high cheek-boned and imperceptibly pregnant, came down for a rice pudding and has stayed for the spectacle. She sips a taste of cocktail from a teaspoon. “Can you feel the baby yet?” asks Hannah Letten, a sprightly, ginger-haired student. “Do you feel a little pod inside you?” “It’s like asking can you feel your heart or can you feel your liver,” says Amira. “It’s just nothing at the moment.”

Welcome to the modern commune: wipe your feet before you enter. The inhabitants of this 34-bedroom house live and eat alongside each other, laugh and get drunk together, play Cards against Humanity, a game of post-ironic bad taste, as the evening hubbub dies down. Some stay for weeks, some for months, others indefinitely, uncertain and often unconcerned about where they will move to next. As well as three Englishmen, the cocktail class includes an American, a Canadian, a Venezuelan and an Australian. They are unencumbered by family responsibilities and have no place they call home. Most of them would happily function anywhere in the world with a robust internet connection.

For hundreds of years, communal living has been an escape route from mainstream society. The commune is a utopian experiment where hierarchies are broken down and human relations re-imagined. The ashram dosed up visitors with spiritual infusions. The Jewish state, a project many considered impossibly idealistic almost until the moment it was created, was built on the back of another type of collective, the kibbutz. The most drastic social experiments of the 20th century were conducted by people who called themselves communists. Apocalyptic believers and countercultural dreamers congregated in communes to distance themselves from a world they considered unredeemed and soulless. The commune in Chelsea is nothing like this. Classical musicians, lawyers and venture capitalists live there. Some people go out to work each day, others labour away with monastic dedication in the house’s co-working space. The kitchen is stocked with the essentials of metropolitan sophisticates: Maldon sea salt, Aleppo pepper, preserved lemons. Blackboards on the doors of each bedroom are scrawled with the names of the occupants (one reads, enigmatically, “The Pope’s room”). The property is one of four operated by Roam, a company that describes itself as a “co-living and co-working community”. It manages similar-sized complexes in Miami, Tokyo and Ubud in Bali. They are designed for people who can work anywhere and want to live everywhere.

More here.