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

Harry Gesner and crew operating on the Sandcastle Residence, his house on the Malibu Coastline, which was finished in 1970. All pictures supplied by Harry Gesner/Lisa Stoddard except if otherwise mentioned.

To grasp how 90-year-previous Harry Gesner, Malibu’;s maverick modern architect, types buildings, it helps to realize that although homes are his career, they are far from his daily life. The guy was practically born surfing taught by lifeguards riding big balsa boards near his childhood home in Oxnard, California, it grew to become his passion. The practice each saved his life—when the former soldier’;s boat landed on Omaha Seaside throughout 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 Property, a frozen series of cresting roofs which he first sketched on the back of a surfboard with a grease pencil. While he was forced to give up surfing a number of years ago, Gesner even now keeps a rack of boards near the beachfront behind his Malibu house, as if poised to take benefit if his predicament modifications.

In particular person, 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, ready to spin a story from nearly each and every object he sees (“that is the harpoon my dad utilised to hunt sharks!”). That rack of boards, even so, may inform the most essential story. Surfing—an exercise tied to the rhythms of nature, an unflappable sense of journey, and virtually diving in—goes a extended way in the direction of describing Gerner’;s character, style and entire body of operate. Composed of a lot more than one particular hundred buildings, his oeuvre is uniquely tied to the landscape (“the surroundings provides me the clues I want for architecture: the view, the wind, and the sun”). Many 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 quite very good at creating classic Spanish houses,” says Gesner. “He noticed my perform as a kid and stated, ‘you should not be an architect, due to the fact you have no talent.’; That produced me mad, and I determined that I would be an architect.”


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

“I explained, ‘I respect that, but I never want to follow you,'” says Gesner.

As an alternative, Gesner made the decision to spend the subsequent decade teaching himself, apprenticing to stone masons, carpenters and plumbers, finding out the developing trades whilst continuously sketching and functioning on his personal patterns. Turns out, he was in a position to educate himself in half the time. Soon after finding out what he could as a self-taught tradesman, he created an adobe property for his mother and father, then he set off on his own.

In several methods, Gesner’;s formative time period in the ’;50s, and his advancement as an architect, contained all the strands of creative DNA that seemed present in other dynamic mid-century California types. 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 famous flying-wing airplane, and his father, himself an adventurer who rode with Teddy Roosevelt and raced autos, owned an early plane that resembled a Wright Brother’;s flyer. It was a fusion of restlessness, reinvention, and technology frequent to West Coast mythology.


Examples of some of Gesner’;s more angular works, the Stegel Property (1962) and Triangle House (1960). Bottom image through Sotheby’;s

On the power of a series of early commissions in the mid to late ’;50s usually identified via pal and family members connections, this kind of as the Cole Home (1954) and Wave Residence (1957), Gesner grew to become an architect for clients in and about Los Angeles searching for adventurous present day residences. More than the decades he is worked for industrialists and film stars, even designing unfinished properties for Marlon Brando, a “fickle” client who constantly changed his thoughts. He designed a status for operating with unorthodox websites, taming steep hills and rough coastlines by delivering exclusive rooms with a view. As his operate evolved from steep A-frames and angular buildings to a lot more rounded structures, his 1 constant was eschewing convention.

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

Nevertheless occupied at 90—he sketches till late at evening, going up and down the spiral staircase that prospects to his office—Gesner is nevertheless doing work on new commissions, and at present developing an experimental, swift-build house for an unnamed consumer that would not demand a basis. He says that he nevertheless commences every single job as he always has, by sitting on the internet site, taking in whatever’;s currently being broadcast by the surroundings, and transferring that to his design and style. The sound of surf in the background, and the see of the ocean from his living room, framed by a huge curved series of windows, proved excellent backdrops to hearing him describe his practice and philosophy.

“In this home, every day is a new day, and you never ever get exhausted of it,” he says. “There is something about the extraordinary view. See, there’;s 3 cargo ships out on the horizon. You see the lives passing by, the drama of it all. Every house demands a view, and a standpoint.”

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Reduce image via Could 25, 1959 situation of Daily life Magazine

Cole Home (Hollywood, California: 1954 )
Gesner assisted make a title for himself by creating a residence/bachelor pad for wealthy industrialist and clothing 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 and style took design and style cues from Polynesian huts, and featured steep roof, an illuminated pool, and bamboo curtains.
“Cole had asked a number of architects to layout the property, and I wasn’;t established however, so I knew that I had a whole lot of competition. But I genuinely desired that job. The internet site was best for me: incredible see, hard great deal, set on a hillside. I sat down and drew for a sound week, working on some thing that would be ideal for him. I figured, he is flamboyant, he loves women, so I came up with a fun, playful design and style. I got it all collectively and went to his factory in downtown Los Angeles. This was where they butchered cattle, so it smelled rather negative. I went up to the penthouse of the factory, where he lived at the time, and spread out all the drawings. I ended up obtaining the job, and in terms of notoriety, it manufactured my identify nicely acknowledged.”

Eagle’;s View House (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner designed this property for the father of his friend, Dick Markowitz, employing a striking laminated timber roof with a wing-like profile that perched on the hill. The developing would later on burn down in 1993, only to be rebuilt by Gesner 4 years later on.
“The father of a single of my buddies in large college dealt in true estate, and had a piece of house in Malibu where he wanted to create an apartment constructing with a excellent see of the ocean, which of course, I’;m constantly attracted to. He took me out and showed me the lot. He wished 6 apartments, so I developed a constructing that fit the hillside. For the duration of the design and style process, I climbed the hill behind it, sat there to eat my lunch, and was stunned by the view. I believed, it is a wonderful location 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 start up Sun Valley in Idaho. Sepp assisted design a tram, and I convinced the owner to allow me build a property. I named it Eagle’;s View since each time I went up there, I noticed an eagle circling overhead.”

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Cooper Wave House (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner’;s most renowned style, which appears 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 much exciting as he was.” Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera Home, was so taken by the residence that he referred to as Gesner lengthy-distance to demonstrate his appreciation for the design.
“I built the Wave Residence close to a series of curved, laminated beams. I wished a form like you’;d find in the ocean. I truly wished some thing that was ideal to that site. Incidentally, it is a round residence, even although it looks like a wave. I needed a roof that formed to the curves, like scales on a fish. Which is why it has a copper roof with shingles. Not just for the result, but because it works. I designed it even though sitting on a surfboard out by some rocks close to 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 in excess of the Cahuenga Pass atop a hill with a 45-degree incline, for an attorney, Ronald Buck. Just one,200 square feet in dimension, they provide amazing views..
“I was taken to individuals plenty and informed they had been throwaway pieces of property in the Hollywood Hills. Because the incline was so steep, you couldn’;t genuinely stroll on them. Buck stated he’;d spend me $ 500 to design each and every home. There were 15, so I figured I would do just one layout. The way to do it was to style them in a way that you’;re drilling one hole into the hill and the homes rest on 1 beam, like a setting on a ring. Following I designed them, I had to discover a person who would construct them on the hillside, given 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 genuinely did not talk English extremely properly, except for one particular man. But, they mentioned they could do it, and for them, it was enjoyable, just like creating a ship in Norway.

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Sandcastle Home (Malibu, California: 1970)
The cylindrical Sandcastle Property, manufactured from stucco, wood, and salvaged materials, sits following door to Gesner’;s masterpiece, the Wave Property.
“I didn’;t want to compete with the residence up coming door. I like to layout outside of the box, to style anything that fits in nature or that specific website. I desired to layout anything that was entertaining, due to the fact I was very significantly in adore with my wife, Nan Martin. I promised her that if she married me, I would design and style her a property on this good deal. She did not say anything at all, so I took that for a yes. She then went to New York—she was a Broadway actress and a very fine one—packed up her apartment, and moved in with me.

“It truly is constructed in the round simply because I wanted to experiment with that shape. I identified there’;s no lost space. Every little thing functions in the round style. The focal factors of the earliest habitats had been the fire pits in the center. Go back through background: nests are round, every thing is round, the Earth, planet solar program, it’;s all round. Why battle it?

“The fireplace was created as a stage, I’;d taken a clue from the style of the Hollywood Bowl, which displays sound. Nan would sit on this hearth and give readings, and it worked out superbly, because the form 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]
∙ Purchase One of the Gesner Boathouses in Cahuenga Pass for $ 649k [Curbed Los Angeles]
∙ Harry Gesner archives [Curbed]

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