Rosa Ellen on Within Foundations

Within Foundations (2012)

Artists: Beth Arnold and Sary Zananiri


Welcome to this humble home. A spacious three-bedroom house with bathroom, living room, modern open plan kitchen and easy-to-maintain garden. Conveniently located near trains and landscaped wetlands in the fast-growing community of Officer, in Melbourne’s south-east.

Full disclosure: you will notice from either visiting or seeing photos of this public artwork, that this home is no more than a solid, double-brick outline of a house. Its layout and the quality of its construction make it seamlessly realistic. Yet the walls end mysteriously at knee-height, and green grass carpets the generous interior. Southerly walls sink into the sloping hill of Eastern Pocket Park.

Whether it’s a house yet to be built or the tidy ruins of an abandoned dream, is yours to ponder.

For ten years, Within Foundations has stood submerged in the pocket of park inside the Aspect estate. The two artists who designed this work wanted people to use the foundations for their own leisure: to sit and chat on the unfinished walls or picnic inside the once-standing rooms. With the familiarity of a house, they imagined locals might walk barefoot through the space and orientate themselves by way of the suggested front door (to the right of two solid bevelled brick window frames).

More specifically, they hoped local kids would find inspiration to make up games within its mini walls, recognising the playful possibilities of having a full-scale house all to their own (in fact it’s a fraction smaller than a real one).

There is a long tradition of play in architecture. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ‘folly’ was a popular ornamental addition to grand European gardens. Miniature Roman ruins, pagodas, minarets and castles would add a touch of fantasy to manicured landscapes. A sight for the imagination to linger, but not to venture far into — the interior of a folly was usually vacant, fake.

As much as it spatially represents a home, the plainness of this formal brick foundation makes it more of a bizarro folly. Some viewers have found its bland suburban looks to be a critique. What a folly might look like if romance was replaced by homogeneity. The Age’s art critic Robert Nelson felt it tapped into an anxiety about unsustainable urban development:

‘As a new ruin, this subtle work is portentous, suggesting that the urban expansion is doomed to languish in a petroleated desert.’

Viewers now might have similar takes. But perhaps they don’t live in the Aspect estate or other medium-density outer suburbs. The care with which Within Foundations was designed and created, the decade of maintenance and mowing by council workers, and the passage of time that has seen the structure settle and age alongside the neighbourhood, summons a more optimistic view.

The layout of Within Foundations is based on a combination of floor plans from nearby estates. While designing it, Beth Arnold and Sary Zananiri consulted the style of the houses being built around it, and added features they thought would make it fit in: narrow side garden beds, front yards planted with then-fashionable Yucca plants; a grey coloured brick with a fired-on surface that is smooth and resistant to graffiti, a sense of two large windows looking out, and small front garden.

Back in 2012, the construction site of the artwork was something of a novelty. Compared to the other developments springing up around Officer, it took a fraction of the time. But like a real one, the site required trenches to be dug and safety standards to be strictly maintained. The land was cleared to a muddy slope with earthmovers – the main labour needed to construct it was a brickie. Then with a sprinkling of grass lawn seeds, the mortar was left to set and nature to take its course.

Ten years later, the meaning of Within Foundations as an artwork has possibly changed, as all our ideas of home have changed in the COVID19 pandemic.

Saplings have become tall eucalypts, single storeys have become two, children are teenagers, the yuccas have disappeared.

The key to this public artwork’s success, the artists believed at the outset, was the community’s interaction with it. The work sits somewhere between a building site and a ruin. It invites lying down (on the grass) and walking through. Playing, thinking, and pressing pause on life. Within Foundations suggests the possibilities, banalities and community of living somewhere. Enjoy all that it has to offer.

Rosa Ellen

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