Marston Bowen

There is often a package: A title, a slogan, a website, a glossy exterior render. Tools to give an impression of what it would be like to live in a new apartment complex… once it’s built of course. There is also the physical space, the ‘display suite’, where prospective buyers can glean an idea of the apartment’s finishes. While display suites have existed for as long as buying off-the-plan has been an option, they have been increasingly dedicated to promoting a ‘lifestyle’. The flavour of lifestyle offered by an apartment differs between developments and locations, but the lowest common denominator seems to be the local café.

Contemporary cafés have their own logic of evaluation: the origin of the coffee, the local roaster, the Swiss grinder, the Italian-made espresso machine, the Japanese soy milk – and that’s just the coffee. You then have the source of the produce, the food ethos, the personalities involved and the ‘fit-out’ also form part of a checklist used to value a café. With cities like Sydney and Melbourne becoming renowned for their ‘café lifestyle’ it makes sense for these markers of value to become part of the display suite language.
        The Marrick and Co sales suite is located on the corner of Illawarra Road and Marrickville Road, a local hub of shops, bars and cafés quite a distance away from the site of the development. To right of the entrance is an espresso machine and coffee grinder on a dedicated table, and to the left is a series of banquette seating, both fixtures built in polished ply. A series of shelves display empty beer bottles from the local brewery, cookbooks by Bill Granger and others, and the windows decorated with a commissioned work by a local artist. You could almost sit down and order a coffee, until you realise the seating is cordoned off by a velvet rope, and you look up to see the slogan: ‘A New Kind of Authentic Living.’
        Coffee is only for client meetings, as is the row of banquette seating. Also accessible to registered parties is the model of the development in the centre of the room, and the display kitchen on the back wall. Without delving into what might constitute ‘Authentic Living,’ the most stand-out observation is that any sort of architectural communication is clearly irrelevant, bland or at best: secondary. Presumably a typical floor plan, or any other specific or descriptive information is made available to ‘serious’ buyers; but it seems the value of this development is not in the planning, spatial quality, or the tectonics of the apartment, but in the ungraspable concept of ‘Authentic Living’. There is however, access to two pamphlets, featuring several exterior and interior renders, and slogans aiming not to answer any questions, but at least ease concerns.
        Marrick & Co is not unique in its adoption of café culture, at Novak Properties in Dee Why you can sit down at the marble ‘welcome bar’ and order a coffee and an antipasto platter before buying off-the-plan. Thirdi is a developer that has now opened two fully-functioning cafes adjoined to their display suites. Property website Domain writes an article featuring Thirdi’s cafes and an anecdote about a couple who mistook the space a regular café, fell in love with the place and bought off the plan several hours after their meal.
        While it’s easy to dismiss the use of café culture to sell apartments as simply a sales trend, or a new marketing tactic, the increasing public-ness of display suites presents an interesting situation: a seemingly neutral forum where the value of an apartment is dictated by the seller. The home is not a dwelling here, but a product like the coffee, the prosecco or the antipasto. Other voices in this forum – the Engineer, the Architect, and alternative dictators of what is important when considering a dwelling - need only be ‘award-winning’, any further detail is just baggage. Perhaps architect-led developments like Nightingale could employ a public-like suite of their own? Advocating for architectural rigour instead of lifestyle? Would photos of attractive women eating salads be replaced by designs for barely-legal staircases? And glossy renders be replaced by diagrams of an effective thermal break?
        In these spaces the public is carefully directed, the criteria for evaluating a home is dictated by the seller, and this is nothing new in sales-suites. While the criteria presented to the public may change from cost, to location, to lifestyle or another measure, when housing is treated as a commodity there is only one important component for the seller: the transaction.

Bonsoy as cultural capital - The product, the product popularised as a tattoo, the product as a background feature in cafe marketing.

Marston Bowen is a designer and casual academic at the UTS School of Architecture.