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

Harry Gesner and crew working on the Sandcastle Home, his residence on the Malibu Coastline, which was finished in 1970. All images offered by Harry Gesner/Lisa Stoddard unless of course otherwise mentioned.

To grasp how 90-12 months-previous Harry Gesner, Malibu’;s maverick contemporary architect, types buildings, it helps to realize that even though properties are his occupation, they’;re far from his life. The man was virtually born surfing taught by lifeguards riding huge balsa boards close to his childhood property 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 Seashore throughout WWII, he utilised a surfing move, duck diving, to dodge enemy fire—and influenced the design and style of his most renowned developing, the copper shingle-crested Wave Home, a frozen series of cresting roofs which he first sketched on the back of a surfboard with a grease pencil. Whilst he was forced to give up surfing a number of many years ago, Gesner still keeps a rack of boards close to the beachfront behind his Malibu home, as if poised to consider advantage if his scenario adjustments.

In person, Gesner is energetic and a charming storyteller. Sitting in front of a crackling fire inside his residence, referred to as Sandcastle, which he made for himself and his late wife, Nan Martin, he is swift to laugh, capable to spin a story from nearly each object he sees (“that’;s the harpoon my dad used to hunt sharks!”). That rack of boards, nevertheless, could inform the most critical story. Surfing—an action tied to the rhythms of nature, an unflappable sense of adventure, and literally diving in—goes a long way in the direction of describing Gerner’;s character, design and physique of function. Composed of a lot more than 25 buildings, his oeuvre is uniquely tied to the landscape (“the environment offers me the clues I want for architecture: the see, the wind, and the sun”). A lot of characteristic the type 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 really good at designing traditional Spanish houses,” says Gesner. “He saw my function as a child and stated, ‘you shouldn’;t be an architect, simply because you have no talent.’; That created me mad, and I determined that I would be an architect.”


Gesner decided to be a builder early on, and right after returning from Planet War II in 1944, that is precisely what he did (right after a quick 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 standard 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 classes. His function impressed Wright, who invited him to review at Taliesin. But Gesner decided he “didn’;t want to be a Wright follower,” and took a pass.

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

Instead, Gesner determined to devote the next decade teaching himself, apprenticing to stone masons, carpenters and plumbers, finding out the creating trades whilst constantly sketching and operating on his personal designs. Turns out, he was able to teach himself in half the time. Following understanding what he could as a self-taught tradesman, he made an adobe home for his mothers and fathers, then he set off on his very own.

In a lot of methods, Gesner’;s formative time period in the ’;50s, and his growth as an architect, contained all the strands of imaginative DNA that appeared existing in other dynamic mid-century California patterns. He was driven in the direction of self-determination, adventure, and independence. He was eco-conscious and influenced by nature. He even took place to have aeronautics in his blood, as his uncle, John K. Northrop, invented the well-known 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 engineering common to West Coast mythology.


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

On the strength of a series of early commissions in the mid to late ’;50s usually found through buddy and family members connections, this kind of as the Cole Residence (1954) and Wave Residence (1957), Gesner became an architect for consumers in and close to Los Angeles searching for adventurous modern homes. Above the decades he is worked for industrialists and movie stars, even designing unfinished properties for Marlon Brando, a “fickle” consumer who continually changed his thoughts. He created a status for working with unorthodox internet sites, taming steep hills and rough coastlines by delivering distinctive rooms with a see. As his function evolved from steep A-frames and angular buildings to far more rounded structures, his a single continual was eschewing convention.

“I consider I have the affinity to study a person’;s thoughts, life style, and persona,” he says. “You have to be tuned in to them, and I can do that. I try out and feel about all the aspects in daily life that would feed the joy of residing.”

Even now active at 90—he sketches until finally late at evening, going up and down the spiral staircase that leads to his office—Gesner is even now doing work on new commissions, and at the moment designing an experimental, fast-build house for an unnamed client that wouldn’;t call for a basis. He says that he nevertheless commences every single work as he constantly has, by sitting on the web site, taking in whatever’;s becoming broadcast by the surroundings, and transferring that to his style. The sound of surf in the background, and the see of the ocean from his residing area, framed by a massive curved series of windows, proved excellent backdrops to hearing him describe his practice and philosophy.

“In this property, every single day is a new day, and you never get tired of it,” he says. “There is one thing 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 wants a see, and a viewpoint.”

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Reduce image via Might 25, 1959 concern of Life Magazine

Cole Residence (Hollywood, California: 1954 )
Gesner aided make a identify 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. At some point featured in Real 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 handful of architects to layout the house, and I wasn’;t established yet, so I knew that I had a lot of competition. But I actually desired that task. The web site was best for me: extraordinary see, difficult good deal, set on a hillside. I sat down and drew for a strong week, working on something that would be appropriate for him. I figured, he’;s flamboyant, he loves girls, so I came up with a exciting, playful style. I received it all collectively and went to his factory in downtown Los Angeles. This was in which they butchered cattle, so it smelled pretty poor. 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 acquiring the work, and in terms of notoriety, it manufactured my name properly identified.”

Eagle’;s View Residence (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner designed this house for the father of his good friend, Dick Markowitz, utilizing a striking laminated timber roof with a wing-like profile that perched on the hill. The creating would later on burn up down in 1993, only to be rebuilt by Gesner 4 years later.
“The father of a single of my pals in higher school dealt in genuine estate, and had a piece of residence in Malibu exactly where he needed to develop an apartment developing with a excellent view of the ocean, which of course, I’;m usually attracted to. He took me out and showed me the good deal. He desired 6 apartments, so I created a developing that match the hillside. In the course of the design and style approach, I climbed the hill behind it, sat there to eat my lunch, and was stunned by the see. I believed, it truly is a great place 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 instructor, Sepp Benedictor who came above from Austria to the U.S. to start off up Sun Valley in Idaho. Sepp aided design and style a tram, and I convinced the proprietor to allow me build a property. I named it Eagle’;s Observe simply because each time I went up there, I saw an eagle circling overhead.”

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Cooper Wave Residence (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner’;s most renowned layout, 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 fun as he was.” Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who created the Sydney Opera Property, was so taken by the home that he referred to as Gesner long-distance to present his appreciation for the design and style.
“I created the Wave House around a series of curved, laminated beams. I wished a form like you’;d find in the ocean. I actually desired something that was ideal to that internet site. Incidentally, it truly is a round property, even however it seems to be like a wave. I needed 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 performs. I created it although 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 designed these irregular-shaped residence, which cantilever over the Cahuenga Pass atop a hill with a 45-degree incline, for an lawyer, Ronald Buck. Just one,200 square feet in size, they supply incredible views..
“I was taken to those lots and advised they had been throwaway pieces of property in the Hollywood Hills. Since the incline was so steep, you could not genuinely stroll on them. Buck stated he’;d pay out me $ 500 to layout every single residence. There were 15, so I figured I’;d do just one particular style. The way to do it was to layout them in a way that you happen to be drilling one hole into the hill and the homes rest on a single beam, like a setting on a ring. Right after I developed them, I had to find someone who would develop them on the hillside, given that they’;d have to do the perform whilst they were suspended from ropes. By luck, I located a group of Norwegians shipbuilders who had been repairing churches. They worked with hand axes and saws, and genuinely didn’;t communicate English quite properly, except for 1 man. But, they mentioned they could do it, and for them, it was entertaining, just like creating a ship in Norway.

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Sandcastle Property (Malibu, California: 1970)
The cylindrical Sandcastle Residence, made from stucco, wood, and salvaged material, sits up coming door to Gesner’;s masterpiece, the Wave Home.
“I did not want to compete with the house subsequent door. I like to design outdoors of the box, to layout some thing that fits in nature or that certain web site. I needed to design some thing that was fun, due to the fact I was quite a lot in adore with my wife, Nan Martin. I promised her that if she married me, I would layout her a property on this good deal. She did not say something, 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 truly is developed in the round simply because I wished to experiment with that form. I identified there is no lost space. Every thing performs in the round design. The focal factors of the earliest habitats were the fire pits in the center. Go back by way of background: nests are round, every thing is round, the Earth, planet solar program, it is all round. Why battle it?

“The fireplace was made as a stage, I would taken a clue from the design and style 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 best setting for an audience.”

∙ Harry Gesner’;s 1960 Triangle Property Comes With a Small 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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