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

Harry Gesner and crew operating on the Sandcastle Property, his property on the Malibu Coastline, which was finished in 1970. All photos offered by Harry Gesner/Lisa Stoddard unless otherwise noted.

To grasp how 90-12 months-outdated Harry Gesner, Malibu’;s maverick modern architect, types buildings, it helps to understand that whilst houses are his job, they’;re far from his life. The guy was nearly born surfing taught by lifeguards riding massive balsa boards close to his childhood residence 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 Beach throughout 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 ago, Gesner even now keeps a rack of boards near the beachfront behind his Malibu home, as if poised to take benefit if his circumstance adjustments.

In individual, Gesner is energetic and a charming storyteller. Sitting in front of a crackling fire within his home, named Sandcastle, which he created for himself and his late wife, Nan Martin, he’;s swift to laugh, able to spin a story from nearly every single object he sees (“which is the harpoon my dad utilised to hunt sharks!”). That rack of boards, nonetheless, could inform the most essential story. Surfing—an action tied to the rhythms of nature, an unflappable sense of journey, and actually diving in—goes a extended way towards describing Gerner’;s character, fashion and body of operate. Composed of a lot more than one particular hundred buildings, his oeuvre is uniquely tied to the landscape (“the setting gives me the clues I require for architecture: the see, the wind, and the sun”). A lot of function 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 very very good at developing traditional Spanish houses,” says Gesner. “He saw my operate as a child and mentioned, ‘you should not be an architect, since you have no talent.’; That made me mad, and I established that I would be an architect.”


Gesner made the decision to be a builder early on, and right after returning from World War II in 1944, which is exactly what he did (soon 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 traditional way and attended classes Yale University. The eminent Frank Lloyd Wright was teaching there at the time, so Gesner sat in on a couple of of his classes. His work impressed Wright, who invited him to study 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 will not want to stick to you,'” says Gesner.

Rather, Gesner made a decision to devote the up coming decade teaching himself, apprenticing to stone masons, carpenters and plumbers, understanding the creating trades although constantly sketching and doing work on his own patterns. Turns out, he was in a position to educate himself in half the time. After finding out what he could as a self-taught tradesman, he made an adobe residence for his mother and father, then he set off on his very own.

In a lot of ways, Gesner’;s formative time period in the ’;50s, and his development as an architect, contained all the strands of inventive DNA that appeared current in other dynamic mid-century California designs. He was driven in the direction of self-determination, journey, 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 popular flying-wing airplane, and his father, himself an adventurer who rode with Teddy Roosevelt and raced vehicles, 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 more angular functions, the Stegel House (1962) and Triangle Property (1960). Bottom image via Sotheby’;s

On the strength of a series of early commissions in the mid to late ’;50s usually identified via good friend and household connections, this kind of as the Cole Property (1954) and Wave Residence (1957), Gesner became an architect for customers in and around Los Angeles searching for adventurous modern day properties. More than the decades he is worked for industrialists and movie stars, even creating unfinished houses for Marlon Brando, a “fickle” client who continually transformed his mind. He created a popularity for doing work with unorthodox web sites, taming steep hills and rough coastlines by delivering exclusive rooms with a see. As his function evolved from steep A-frames and angular buildings to far more rounded structures, his one continual was eschewing convention.

“I consider 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 consider about all the factors in lifestyle that would feed the joy of living.”

Still busy at 90—he sketches until finally late at evening, going up and down the spiral staircase that leads to his office—Gesner is still operating on new commissions, and presently creating an experimental, quick-create house for an unnamed client that wouldn’;t require a basis. He says that he nonetheless starts each and every work as he always has, by sitting on the site, taking in whatever’;s becoming broadcast by the surroundings, and transferring that to his design. The sound of surf in the background, and the view of the ocean from his living space, framed by a massive curved series of windows, proved excellent backdrops to hearing him describe his practice and philosophy.

“In this property, every day is a new day, and you in no way get exhausted of it,” he says. “There’;s anything about the amazing see. See, there’;s 3 cargo ships out on the horizon. You see the lives passing by, the drama of it all. Each and every home needs a see, and a standpoint.”

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Reduce image by way of May possibly 25, 1959 concern of Lifestyle Magazine

Cole Residence (Hollywood, California: 1954 )
Gesner helped 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. Eventually featured in True men’;s magazine, the angular design and style took style cues from Polynesian huts, and featured steep roof, an illuminated pool, and bamboo curtains.
“Cole had asked a handful of architects to design the home, and I was not established however, so I knew that I had a great deal of competitors. But I actually wanted that task. The web site was ideal for me: extraordinary view, hard good deal, set on a hillside. I sat down and drew for a solid week, doing work on one thing that would be suitable for him. I figured, he’;s flamboyant, he loves girls, so I came up with a fun, playful style. I got it all collectively and went to his factory in downtown Los Angeles. This was in which they butchered cattle, so it smelled rather poor. I went up to the penthouse of the factory, where he lived at the time, and spread out all the drawings. I ended up receiving the job, and in terms of notoriety, it made my title properly known.”

Eagle’;s Observe Residence (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner made this house 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 up down in 1993, only to be rebuilt by Gesner 4 years later.
“The father of 1 of my close friends in large school dealt in true estate, and had a piece of home in Malibu the place he desired to build an apartment creating with a excellent view of the ocean, which of program, I am usually attracted to. He took me out and showed me the whole lot. He desired 6 apartments, so I developed a creating that fit the hillside. During 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’;s a great spot 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 teacher, Sepp Benedictor who came in excess of from Austria to the U.S. to commence up Sun Valley in Idaho. Sepp helped design and style a tram, and I convinced the proprietor to allow me develop a property. I named it Eagle’;s Observe due to the fact each time I went up there, I noticed an eagle circling overhead.”

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Cooper Wave Property (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner’;s most famous design, which appears like a cresting wave when viewed from the water, was created for a man named Gerry Cooper, who the architect described as “not the actor, but tall, slim, and as considerably enjoyable as he was.” Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who made the Sydney Opera Residence, was so taken by the property that he referred to as Gesner extended-distance to present his appreciation for the design and style.
“I built the Wave House around a series of curved, laminated beams. I wanted a shape like you’;d find in the ocean. I genuinely wished something that was appropriate to that site. Incidentally, it really is a round property, even although it appears 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 effect, but because it works. I designed 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 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 1,200 square feet in size, they offer you extraordinary views..
“I was taken to those tons and told they had been throwaway pieces of property in the Hollywood Hills. Because the incline was so steep, you couldn’;t truly walk on them. Buck stated he’;d spend me $ 500 to design and style every home. There have been 15, so I figured I’;d do just a single design. The way to do it was to design and style them in a way that you happen to be drilling one hole into the hill and the houses rest on 1 beam, like a setting on a ring. Following I designed them, I had to locate someone who would construct them on the hillside, given that they’;d have to do the work even though they have 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 actually didn’;t speak English extremely well, except for 1 man. But, they said they could do it, and for them, it was fun, just like creating a ship in Norway.

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Sandcastle Property (Malibu, California: 1970)
The cylindrical Sandcastle House, created from stucco, wood, and salvaged material, sits following door to Gesner’;s masterpiece, the Wave Property.
“I did not want to compete with the home up coming door. I like to design and style outside of the box, to style anything that fits in nature or that particular web site. I wished to design and style something that was exciting, simply because I was quite a lot in enjoy with my wife, Nan Martin. I promised her that if she married me, I would design and style her a property on this great 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 extremely 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 shape. I found there’;s no misplaced room. Almost everything functions in the round layout. The focal points of the earliest habitats have been the fire pits in the center. Go back by way of background: nests are round, every thing is round, the Earth, planet solar system, it is all round. Why battle it?

“The fireplace was designed as a stage, I would taken a clue from the design and style of the Hollywood Bowl, which reflects sound. Nan would sit on this hearth and give readings, and it worked out superbly, since the form of the fireplace kinds a sound reflector. It was a ideal setting for an audience.”

∙ Harry Gesner’;s 1960 Triangle House Comes With a Small Guesthouse Replica of Itself [Curbed Los Angeles]
∙ Purchase 1 of the Gesner Boathouses in Cahuenga Pass for $ 649k [Curbed Los Angeles]
∙ Harry Gesner archives [Curbed]

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