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

Harry Gesner and crew doing work on the Sandcastle Home, his residence on the Malibu Coastline, which was completed in 1970. All pictures presented by Harry Gesner/Lisa Stoddard unless of course otherwise noted.

To grasp how 90-12 months-outdated Harry Gesner, Malibu’;s maverick modern architect, patterns buildings, it helps to recognize that while houses are his occupation, they are far from his lifestyle. The man was practically born surfing taught by lifeguards riding large balsa boards close to his childhood home in Oxnard, California, it grew to become his passion. The practice the 2 saved his life—when the former soldier’;s boat landed on Omaha Seaside during WWII, he utilised a surfing move, duck diving, to dodge enemy fire—and influenced the design and style of his most famous building, the copper shingle-crested Wave House, a frozen series of cresting roofs which he 1st sketched on the back of a surfboard with a grease pencil. Even though he was forced to give up surfing a couple of many years ago, Gesner nevertheless keeps a rack of boards close to the beachfront behind his Malibu house, as if poised to get benefit if his situation adjustments.

In man or woman, Gesner is energetic and a charming storyteller. Sitting in front of a crackling fire within his home, named Sandcastle, which he designed for himself and his late wife, Nan Martin, he is quick to laugh, capable to spin a story from practically every object he sees (“that is the harpoon my dad utilized to hunt sharks!”). That rack of boards, even so, might tell the most critical story. Surfing—an action tied to the rhythms of nature, an unflappable sense of adventure, and literally diving in—goes a prolonged way in the direction of describing Gerner’;s character, design and body of work. Composed of more than 25 buildings, his oeuvre is uniquely tied to the landscape (“the surroundings gives me the clues I want for architecture: the view, the wind, and the sun”). A lot of characteristic the kind 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 extremely excellent at creating conventional Spanish houses,” says Gesner. “He noticed my perform as a kid and said, ‘you should not be an architect, simply because you have no talent.’; That made me mad, and I established that I would be an architect.”


Gesner decided to be a builder early on, and right after returning from Globe War II in 1944, that is specifically what he did (after a brief detour hopping boats down the coast to dig up Incan tombs in Ecuador). Taking benefit of the G.I. Bill upon his return, he studied the standard way and attended lessons Yale University. The eminent Frank Lloyd Wright was educating there at the time, so Gesner sat in on a few of his lessons. His perform impressed Wright, who invited him to examine at Taliesin. But Gesner made a decision he “didn’;t want to be a Wright follower,” and took a pass.

“I said, ‘I respect that, but I will not want to comply with you,'” says Gesner.

As an alternative, Gesner decided to spend the subsequent decade teaching himself, apprenticing to stone masons, carpenters and plumbers, learning the constructing trades even though constantly sketching and working on his personal designs. Turns out, he was ready to educate himself in half the time. Following understanding what he could as a self-taught tradesman, he made an adobe property for his mothers and fathers, then he set off on his personal.

In many ways, Gesner’;s formative time period in the ’;50s, and his advancement as an architect, contained all the strands of innovative DNA that appeared existing in other dynamic mid-century California designs. He was driven towards self-determination, journey, and independence. He was eco-conscious and influenced by nature. He even happened to have aeronautics in his blood, as his uncle, John K. Northrop, invented the famous flying-wing airplane, and his father, himself an adventurer who rode with Teddy Roosevelt and raced automobiles, owned an early plane that resembled a Wright Brother’;s flyer. It was a fusion of restlessness, reinvention, and technological innovation typical to West Coast mythology.


Examples of some of Gesner’;s a lot more angular performs, the Stegel Home (1962) and Triangle Home (1960). Bottom picture via Sotheby’;s

On the power of a series of early commissions in the mid to late ’;50s often found by way of buddy and household connections, such as the Cole Property (1954) and Wave House (1957), Gesner became an architect for clients in and all around Los Angeles in search of adventurous modern day properties. Over the decades he is worked for industrialists and film stars, even designing unfinished houses for Marlon Brando, a “fickle” consumer who consistently changed his mind. He created a track record for operating with unorthodox websites, taming steep hills and rough coastlines by delivering distinctive rooms with a view. As his perform evolved from steep A-frames and angular buildings to much more rounded structures, his 1 continual was eschewing convention.

“I think I have the affinity to read through a person’;s mind, lifestyle, and persona,” he says. “You have to be tuned in to them, and I can do that. I try and feel about all the variables in daily life that would feed the joy of living.”

Nevertheless hectic at 90—he sketches right up until late at evening, going up and down the spiral staircase that leads to his office—Gesner is even now working on new commissions, and at the moment creating an experimental, quick-build home for an unnamed consumer that would not need a foundation. He says that he nonetheless commences each and every task as he constantly has, by sitting on the website, taking in whatever’;s being broadcast by the surroundings, and transferring that to his design. The sound of surf in the background, and the see of the ocean from his living space, framed by a massive curved series of windows, proved perfect backdrops to hearing him describe his practice and philosophy.

“In this home, each and every day is a new day, and you in no way get exhausted of it,” he says. “There is anything about the extraordinary view. See, there is 3 cargo ships out on the horizon. You see the lives passing by, the drama of it all. Each home demands a view, and a point of view.”

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Reduce image through May 25, 1959 issue of Existence Magazine

Cole Residence (Hollywood, California: 1954 )
Gesner aided make a title for himself by developing a residence/bachelor pad for wealthy industrialist and clothing maker Fred Cole, of Cole of Hollywood, an early innovator of women’;s swimsuits. Eventually featured in Real men’;s magazine, the angular layout took layout cues from Polynesian huts, and featured steep roof, an illuminated pool, and bamboo curtains.
“Cole had asked a number of architects to style the property, and I wasn’;t established however, so I knew that I had a great deal of competitors. But I genuinely needed that work. The web site was ideal for me: incredible view, tough great deal, set on a hillside. I sat down and drew for a sound week, doing work on anything that would be ideal for him. I figured, he is flamboyant, he loves ladies, so I came up with a enjoyable, playful layout. I acquired it all collectively and went to his factory in downtown Los Angeles. This was where they butchered cattle, so it smelled fairly undesirable. I went up to the penthouse of the factory, where he lived at the time, and spread out all the drawings. I ended up acquiring the job, and in terms of notoriety, it manufactured my title well identified.”

Eagle’;s Watch Property (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner developed this property for the father of his pal, Dick Markowitz, using 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 a single of my close friends in high school dealt in genuine estate, and had a piece of residence in Malibu the place he wanted to construct an apartment creating with a wonderful view 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 designed a developing that fit the hillside. During the design approach, I climbed the hill behind it, sat there to eat my lunch, and was stunned by the see. I considered, it is a excellent area for a residence, but the only way you could go up there would be a ski tram. Well, I was a skier, and had a wonderful instructor, Sepp Benedictor who came above from Austria to the U.S. to begin up Sun Valley in Idaho. Sepp aided design and style a tram, and I convinced the owner to let me create a property. I named it Eagle’;s Watch due to the fact anytime I went up there, I saw an eagle circling overhead.”

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Cooper Wave House (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner’;s most renowned design and style, which seems to be 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 enjoyable as he was.” Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who created the Sydney Opera Property, was so taken by the residence that he called Gesner lengthy-distance to show his appreciation for the design and style.
“I constructed the Wave Home around a series of curved, laminated beams. I needed a form like you’;d locate in the ocean. I really wished anything that was suitable to that website. Incidentally, it is a round home, even even though it seems like a wave. I desired 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 impact, but due to the fact it functions. I created it even though 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 designed these irregular-shaped residence, which cantilever over the Cahuenga Pass atop a hill with a 45-degree incline, for an attorney, Ronald Buck. Just one,200 square feet in size, they offer you extraordinary views..
“I was taken to these plenty and advised they had been throwaway pieces of home in the Hollywood Hills. Since the incline was so steep, you couldn’;t truly stroll on them. Buck stated he’;d pay out me $ 500 to style each and every residence. There had been 15, so I figured I’;d do just one particular design. The way to do it was to layout them in a way that you are drilling one particular hole into the hill and the homes rest on one beam, like a setting on a ring. After I made them, I had to discover someone who would construct them on the hillside, given that they’;d have to do the operate whilst they had been suspended from ropes. By luck, I identified a group of Norwegians shipbuilders who had been repairing churches. They worked with hand axes and saws, and genuinely did not speak English quite well, except for a single guy. But, they explained they could do it, and for them, it was fun, just like creating a ship in Norway.

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Sandcastle House (Malibu, California: 1970)
The cylindrical Sandcastle Residence, made from stucco, wood, and salvaged materials, sits subsequent door to Gesner’;s masterpiece, the Wave Property.
“I did not want to compete with the home next door. I like to style outdoors of the box, to style anything that fits in nature or that certain internet site. I wished to style anything that was enjoyable, because I was really considerably in love with my wife, Nan Martin. I promised her that if she married me, I would design her a property on this good deal. 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 quite fine one—packed up her apartment, and moved in with me.

“It truly is built in the round due to the fact I wanted to experiment with that shape. I found there’;s no lost room. Everything functions in the round style. The focal factors of the earliest habitats have been the fire pits in the center. Go back through history: nests are round, every little thing is round, the Earth, planet solar technique, it is all round. Why battle it?

“The fireplace was developed 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 beautifully, since the form of the fireplace types a sound reflector. It was a excellent setting for an audience.”

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

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