Sauerbier House, Port Noarlunga

Sauerbier House. Most of us will have driven past the building over the years. It stands near the bridge over the Onkaparinga River as it readies itself to flow into the ocean immediately south of Port Noarlunga. The other nearby landmark is the ‘big sand hill’ that generations of kids have rolled down as part of the Port Noarlunga experience. Before it was formally christened ‘Sauerbier House’, the building was derelict for much of its later life and half-hidden by vegetation and a river levee. Now it looks rather posh with a reroof, nick and tuck around the quoins and a new paint job. Its rebirth as an arts centre coincides with a decision of the Onkaparinga Council to attend to its heritage by applying some TLC and planning savvy to significant precincts and buildings. It has been a close run thing, as Sauerbier House, despite being one of the few remaining intact early buildings in Port Noarlunga, failed after a number of attempts to get a State Heritage Listing until 1993. It is a good example of a late Victorian limestone house enclosed by a bull nosed verandah. Original outbuildings have been preserved, with the laundry/washroom now converted into a Writer’s Studio. The interior reflects the original no-nonsense taste of the original owners: white painted plaster walls and a suspended Baltic pine floor. Display lighting gives the rooms and hallway the capacity to display works to advantage and extended decking off the catering area will accommodate public programming such as openings and markets. Two rooms in the house are already dedicated to short-term artist residencies (a fresh round of exhibition proposals and residency applications is due by November 27 with exhibition outcomes in the Lounge Gallery). The place is humming. Despite the intrusion of a parking lot and a forgettably frescoed public dunny, the land on which the house sits runs down to the estuary and links the site with the river and dunes. In terms of visual dramatics and cultural, particularly Indigenous connections, this siting is extraordinary to say the least. Artist Lisa Harms was clearly aware of this when she recently took on a brief to add a creative component to the transformation of the building into an arts centre. Her central strategy has been to regard the house as an entity through which the past and present can be viewed. Harms talks about “framing devices” (be they windows or the verandah), as if the house is a repository of past events. Critically, the artist came on board just as the major renovations were about to take place. She photographed aspects of this at different stages and interviewed people involved. She also interviewed Sauerbier family members and locals with connections to the house. And in case you’re wondering, the modernist artist Kathleen Sauerbier, whose work is closely associated with the area, is in the family mix. The outcome of this process is an archive presently resolved as a 2.5-hour video displayed in the Lounge Gallery. Harms has plans for this. She envisages a set of QR code maps or “constellations” that could be accessed and explored online. In this way, she anticipates that parallel, overlapping or contradictory voices could be enlisted to create conversations or narratives about the site. As the project proceeded Harms’ role segued into that of Writer in Residence. In this guise the artist adopted the Hallway Gallery and the outbuilding Washroom as her territory. A taste of Harms’ creative intent can be found in the Hallway Gallery where a serialised and progressively blanked out text piece by Siamak Fallah (Az Zabán-i Mádarí /From t he Mother Tongue) is linked with a QR code link to a conversation between the artist and his baby daughter. Nearby in the Hallway, an old, manual typewriter invites visitors to bang out some personal thoughts – maybe even produce some poetry. A selection of these is reverentially displayed in cases in the Washroom Writer’s Studio. Harms and the House team, headed by Programme Coordinator Hope Deane, are laying down flexible structures that will allow for creative growth and community response rather than see it locked in as just another studio/gallery space. It is a delicate balancing act, creating the right conditions for interesting contemporary art to flourish while meeting expectations that the site offers a spotlight on the life and times of the district. If exceptional, imaginative artists can be attracted to its programs (and bring audiences with them), Sauerbier House has the potential to redefine what a brave new Port Noarlunga stands for.

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