The things that excite – or worry us – about our homes are favorite subjects for Toronto Star journalist Elvira Cordileone. Space. Neighborhood. Design. Green tech.

Last week, she came to me with a question:  “Why are so many of us susceptible to the “lifestyle marketing” proffered by condo developers?”

There’s an easy answer here, of course. We’re suckers for condo lifestyle marketing because we’re suckers for lifestyle marketing period. In the triumph of seduction over experience, we’re not immune to the flicker of hope that a sleek new Chanel lipstick or saucy little red sports car will somehow make us more popular, glamorous or happy. When it comes to condos, the promise to provide a fully-fledged lifestyle is even more tantalizing:  after all, a condo is actually a place to live – isn’t it tempting to believe it really can provide a whole lifestyle?

And, come to think of it, why stop at condos? Many homes currently on sale in Toronto have been staged to suggest, if not an outright brand, then at least a perfect lifestyle. Jonathan Kay described this phenomenon in a hilarious National Post column last year. Walls aren’t enough: we hunger for beautiful ideas about ourselves.

But if seduction is part of the picture, I think there are also other things working to make lifestyle marketing in condos and houses effective.

What are our homes about? They are our dwelling places, sure. They’re investments, yes. But they’re more besides: as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, our homes represent a microcosm of the whole social world in which we live. My house is thus a mini-North America. There are dedicated spaces for work (my office, the children’s crafts table), because work is important. Everyone has their own bedroom, because space and privacy are essential. At the same time, the children are invited to decorate their bedrooms as they see fit, because individuality matters. These qualities of a home are normal to us.  Natural even. Except they’re not: they’re expressions of cultural values we’ve absorbed with our mother’s milk (or formula, pace Elizabeth Badinter).

Our homes are also settings in which we can interpret and personalize the social norms that govern our lives. For example, there’s a social norm that says that, as a mother, it is my “job” to preserve my family’s memories. My home is my canvass to do that the way I see fit. So, for example, we keep and display shells that my children have brought home from the beach, rather than, say, the plastic alligator that we bought at the airport. My home is my means to understand who I am in relation to the larger world, to create the me, and the family, that I want.

And yet, as I said in my last post, we’re in a cultural trend of outsourcing. Once upon a time, our home was the site in which we did many of the tasks that centered our lives, like cooking and sharing food, caring for children, marking rituals and holidays. One of the fascinating things about the way in which the condo market now advertises “lifestyles” is that they are taking on the role of creating a sense of what our home is all about. We are outsourcing our “homemaking” to them. Through tangible elements, such as location and design, and also less tangible things like communication messages, they tell us what our home means – and therefore who we are, or more to the point, who we can imagine ourselves to be.

In some respects, this is kind of fun. Consumers aren’t stupid, and we know we’re buying into a fantasy.  But there is an attendant danger – we don’t want to be left with a hollow core, a world of messages about ourselves rather than actualities.

So is it possible to transform a fantasy lifestyle into a real life? A good life? Of course. Here are three ideas for new condo dwellers – or people who’ve bought that perfectly staged home – that Elvira Cordileone and I talked about:

  1. Get connected to the physical place of your neighbourhood. Walk it in all seasons, if you can. Define your neighbourhood and community as broadly as you want to: get to know what plants and animals are native.  Spend an afternoon to research the area’s history. My house felt totally different to me after I found out that it was probably built with bricks from the Evergreen Brickworks, a site I go to almost every weekend with my family.
  2. Make it a goal to know at least three of your neighbours. This can seem downright weird – when I lived in a flat in London, I was cheek by jowl with my neighbours for three years, yet barely knew them. But there is a real sense of security that emerges when we have relationships based on proximity.  And with condos – you’ve also ostensibly bought into the same “lifestyle” – surely you can take the risk that some of those values and beliefs are real and worth expanding?
  3. Make sure you try cooking in that new show kitchen. Eating is fundamental to living and to our sense of selves, not to mention our health. I have a friend who “didn’t do cooking” – and ate take-out off paper plates until his girlfriend moved in with him.  If you want a “lifestyle condo” to be home, cook in it. It will make your house a home. Maybe make dinner for those neighbours.

Condo Image from