Harry Gesner: An Architect, Maverick, and Contemporary Adventurer Riding the Waves

Harry Gesner and crew working on the Sandcastle Property, his house on the Malibu Coastline, which was finished in 1970. All photographs supplied by Harry Gesner/Lisa Stoddard unless otherwise noted.

To grasp how 90-12 months-previous Harry Gesner, Malibu’;s maverick modern architect, designs buildings, it assists to comprehend that while residences are his profession, they’;re far from his lifestyle. The man was nearly born surfing taught by lifeguards riding big balsa boards close to his childhood home in Oxnard, California, it became his passion. The practice each saved his life—when the former soldier’;s boat landed on Omaha Beach in the course of WWII, he used a surfing move, duck diving, to dodge enemy fire—and influenced the design of his most popular developing, the copper shingle-crested Wave Home, a frozen series of cresting roofs which he 1st sketched on the back of a surfboard with a grease pencil. Whilst he was forced to give up surfing a few many years in the past, Gesner still keeps a rack of boards near the beachfront behind his Malibu house, as if poised to take benefit if his situation modifications.

In man or woman, Gesner is energetic and a charming storyteller. Sitting in front of a crackling fire within his house, named Sandcastle, which he made for himself and his late wife, Nan Martin, he’;s rapid to laugh, able to spin a story from almost each and every object he sees (“that is the harpoon my dad utilized to hunt sharks!”). That rack of boards, even so, may inform the most crucial story. Surfing—an activity tied to the rhythms of nature, an unflappable sense of journey, and literally diving in—goes a prolonged way in direction of describing Gerner’;s character, type and entire body of operate. Composed of a lot more than one particular hundred buildings, his oeuvre is uniquely tied to the landscape (“the atmosphere provides me the clues I need to have for architecture: the view, the wind, and the sun”). Numerous attribute the variety of gregarious curves and daring profiles that would come from the drafting board of a restless optimist.

“I had an uncle, Burt Harmer, an architect who was very good at developing traditional Spanish properties,” says Gesner. “He saw my operate as a child and said, ‘you shouldn’;t be an architect, since you have no talent.’; That made me mad, and I determined that I would be an architect.”


Gesner determined to be a builder early on, and following returning from Globe War II in 1944, that’;s specifically what he did (soon after a brief detour hopping boats down the coast to dig up Incan tombs in Ecuador). Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill on his return, he studied the conventional way and attended courses Yale University. The eminent Frank Lloyd Wright was teaching there at the time, so Gesner sat in on a handful of of his classes. His work impressed Wright, who invited him to research at Taliesin. But Gesner determined he “did not want to be a Wright follower,” and took a pass.

“I stated, ‘I respect that, but I will not want to adhere to you,'” says Gesner.

As an alternative, Gesner decided to commit the subsequent decade teaching himself, apprenticing to stone masons, carpenters and plumbers, understanding the constructing trades whilst constantly sketching and functioning on his personal patterns. Turns out, he was ready to educate himself in half the time. After learning what he could as a self-taught tradesman, he designed an adobe property for his dad and mom, then he set off on his own.

In many techniques, Gesner’;s formative period in the ’;50s, and his growth as an architect, contained all the strands of inventive DNA that seemed current in other dynamic mid-century California patterns. He was driven in the direction of self-determination, journey, and independence. He was eco-aware and influenced by nature. He even took place to have aeronautics in his blood, as his uncle, John K. Northrop, invented the renowned flying-wing airplane, and his father, himself an adventurer who rode with Teddy Roosevelt and raced cars, owned an early plane that resembled a Wright Brother’;s flyer. It was a fusion of restlessness, reinvention, and technologies widespread to West Coast mythology.


Examples of some of Gesner’;s far more angular performs, the Stegel Home (1962) and Triangle House (1960). Bottom image by way of Sotheby’;s

On the strength of a series of early commissions in the mid to late ’;50s usually located by way of buddy and household connections, this kind of as the Cole House (1954) and Wave Home (1957), Gesner grew to become an architect for clientele in and around Los Angeles searching for adventurous modern day homes. Above the decades he is worked for industrialists and movie stars, even designing unfinished residences for Marlon Brando, a “fickle” consumer who continually changed his mind. He developed a track record for working with unorthodox internet sites, taming steep hills and rough coastlines by delivering unique rooms with a view. As his perform evolved from steep A-frames and angular buildings to more rounded structures, his 1 continual was eschewing convention.

“I consider I have the affinity to study a person’;s thoughts, way of life, and character,” he says. “You have to be tuned in to them, and I can do that. I try out and believe about all the factors in lifestyle that would feed the joy of living.”

Nevertheless busy at 90—he sketches until late at night, going up and down the spiral staircase that prospects to his office—Gesner is nevertheless doing work on new commissions, and currently creating an experimental, fast-build house for an unnamed client that wouldn’;t call for a basis. He says that he even now begins each occupation as he often has, by sitting on the web site, taking in whatever’;s getting broadcast by the surroundings, and transferring that to his design and style. The sound of surf in the background, and the view of the ocean from his residing room, framed by a enormous curved series of windows, proved ideal backdrops to hearing him describe his practice and philosophy.

“In this house, each day is a new day, and you by no means get exhausted of it,” he says. “There is something about the incredible see. See, there is 3 cargo ships out on the horizon. You see the lives passing by, the drama of it all. Every property wants a view, and a viewpoint.”

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Lower image via May possibly 25, 1959 problem of Lifestyle Magazine

Cole Home (Hollywood, California: 1954 )
Gesner aided make a identify for himself by designing a residence/bachelor pad for wealthy industrialist and clothes maker Fred Cole, of Cole of Hollywood, an early innovator of women’;s swimsuits. Sooner or later featured in Accurate men’;s magazine, the angular design took style cues from Polynesian huts, and featured steep roof, an illuminated pool, and bamboo curtains.
“Cole had asked a few architects to design and style the house, and I was not established but, so I knew that I had a great deal of competition. But I truly wished that job. The internet site was perfect for me: extraordinary see, hard great deal, set on a hillside. I sat down and drew for a strong week, doing work on some thing that would be appropriate for him. I figured, he’;s flamboyant, he loves ladies, so I came up with a enjoyable, playful layout. I got it all together and went to his factory in downtown Los Angeles. This was in which they butchered cattle, so it smelled rather negative. I went up to the penthouse of the factory, exactly where he lived at the time, and spread out all the drawings. I ended up getting the work, and in terms of notoriety, it manufactured my identify effectively recognized.”

Eagle’;s Watch Home (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner made this residence for the father of his buddy, Dick Markowitz, making use of a striking laminated timber roof with a wing-like profile that perched on the hill. The developing would later burn up down in 1993, only to be rebuilt by Gesner 4 years later.
“The father of one of my friends in higher college dealt in actual estate, and had a piece of property in Malibu the place he wished to develop an apartment creating with a great see of the ocean, which of program, I am always attracted to. He took me out and showed me the great deal. He needed 6 apartments, so I created a creating that match the hillside. For the duration of the design method, I climbed the hill behind it, sat there to consume my lunch, and was stunned by the see. I considered, it really is a fantastic area for a home, but the only way you could go up there would be a ski tram. Effectively, I was a skier, and had a great teacher, Sepp Benedictor who came above from Austria to the U.S. to commence up Sun Valley in Idaho. Sepp helped design and style a tram, and I convinced the owner to let me create a residence. I named it Eagle’;s Observe due to the fact anytime I went up there, I saw an eagle circling overhead.”

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Cooper Wave Residence (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner’;s most famous layout, which looks like a cresting wave when viewed from the water, was built for a guy named Gerry Cooper, who the architect described as “not the actor, but tall, slim, and as significantly fun as he was.” Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera Residence, was so taken by the property that he called Gesner extended-distance to present his appreciation for the layout.
“I built the Wave House close to a series of curved, laminated beams. I needed a shape like you’;d uncover in the ocean. I actually wished some thing that was suitable to that internet site. Incidentally, it is a round house, even although it seems to be like a wave. I wanted a roof that formed to the curves, like scales on a fish. That is why it has a copper roof with shingles. Not just for the result, but since it works. I made it although sitting on a surfboard out by some rocks near the shore. I drew it on the board with a grease pencil.”

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Hollywood Boathouses (Hollywood, California: 1959)
Gesner developed these irregular-shaped residence, which cantilever more than the Cahuenga Pass atop a hill with a 45-degree incline, for an lawyer, Ronald Buck. Just 1,200 square feet in size, they supply outstanding views..
“I was taken to individuals tons and told they have been throwaway pieces of property in the Hollywood Hills. Since the incline was so steep, you could not actually walk on them. Buck mentioned he’;d shell out me $ 500 to design each residence. There have been 15, so I figured I would do just a single design and style. The way to do it was to layout them in a way that you are drilling one particular hole into the hill and the residences rest on one particular beam, like a setting on a ring. After I designed them, I had to discover somebody who would build them on the hillside, considering that they’;d have to do the function while they have been suspended from ropes. By luck, I discovered a group of Norwegians shipbuilders who had been repairing churches. They worked with hand axes and saws, and truly did not talk English very properly, except for one guy. But, they mentioned they could do it, and for them, it was exciting, just like developing a ship in Norway.

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Sandcastle House (Malibu, California: 1970)
The cylindrical Sandcastle Property, manufactured from stucco, wood, and salvaged materials, sits following door to Gesner’;s masterpiece, the Wave Residence.
“I didn’;t want to compete with the house subsequent door. I like to design and style outside of the box, to design something that fits in nature or that particular web site. I wished to layout anything that was entertaining, due to the fact I was very much in really like with my wife, Nan Martin. I promised her that if she married me, I would layout her a house on this lot. She didn’;t say anything, so I took that for a yes. She then went to New York—she was a Broadway actress and a really fine one—packed up her apartment, and moved in with me.

“It’;s built in the round simply because I needed to experiment with that form. I located there is no lost space. Almost everything operates in the round layout. The focal points of the earliest habitats were the fire pits in the center. Go back by means of history: nests are round, everything is round, the Earth, planet solar system, it’;s all round. Why battle it?

“The fireplace was created as a stage, I’;d taken a clue from the layout of the Hollywood Bowl, which displays sound. Nan would sit on this hearth and give readings, and it worked out superbly, simply because the shape of the fireplace varieties a sound reflector. It was a excellent setting for an audience.”

∙ Harry Gesner’;s 1960 Triangle Residence Comes With a Little Guesthouse Replica of Itself [Curbed Los Angeles]
∙ Get One of the Gesner Boathouses in Cahuenga Pass for $ 649k [Curbed Los Angeles]
∙ Harry Gesner archives [Curbed]

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