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

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To grasp how 90-year-old Harry Gesner, Malibu's maverick modern architect, designs buildings, it helps to understand that while homes are his career, they're far from his life. The man was nearly born surfing; taught by lifeguards riding big balsa boards near his childhood home in Oxnard, California, it became his passion. The practice both saved his life—when the former soldier's boat landed on Omaha Beach during WWII, he used a surfing move, duck diving, to dodge enemy fire—and influenced the design of his most famous building, the copper shingle-crested Wave House, 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 few years ago, Gesner still keeps a rack of boards near the beachfront behind his Malibu home, as if poised to take advantage if his situation changes.

In person, Gesner is energetic and a charming storyteller. Sitting in front of a crackling fire inside his house, called Sandcastle, which he designed for himself and his late wife, Nan Martin, he's quick to laugh, able to spin a story from nearly every object he sees ("that's the harpoon my dad used to hunt sharks!"). That rack of boards, however, may tell the most important story. Surfing—an activity tied to the rhythms of nature, an unflappable sense of adventure, and literally diving in—goes a long way towards describing Gerner's character, style and body of work. Composed of more than one hundred buildings, his oeuvre is uniquely tied to the landscape ("the environment gives me the clues I need for architecture: the view, the wind, and the sun"). Many feature 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 good at designing traditional Spanish homes," says Gesner. "He saw my work as a child and said, 'you shouldn't be an architect, because you have no talent.' That made me mad, and I determined that I would be an architect."

Gesner decided to be a builder early on, and after returning from World War II in 1944, that's exactly what he did (after a brief detour hopping boats down the coast to dig up Incan tombs in Ecuador). Taking advantage 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 few 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 said, 'I respect that, but I don't want to follow you,'" says Gesner.

Instead, Gesner decided to spend the next decade teaching himself, apprenticing to stone masons, carpenters and plumbers, learning the building trades while continuously sketching and working on his own designs. Turns out, he was able to teach himself in half the time. After learning what he could as a self-taught tradesman, he designed an adobe home for his parents, then he set off on his own.

In many ways, Gesner's formative period in the '50s, and his development as an architect, contained all the strands of creative DNA that seemed present in other dynamic mid-century California designs. He was driven towards self-determination, adventure, 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 cars, owned an early plane that resembled a Wright Brother's flyer. It was a fusion of restlessness, reinvention, and technology common to West Coast mythology.

Examples of some of Gesner's more angular works, the Stegel House (1962) and Triangle House (1960). Bottom image via Sotheby's

On the strength of a series of early commissions in the mid to late '50s often found through friend and family connections, such as the Cole House (1954) and Wave House (1957), Gesner became an architect for clients in and around Los Angeles seeking adventurous modern homes. Over the decades he's worked for industrialists and movie stars, even designing unfinished homes for Marlon Brando, a "fickle" client who constantly changed his mind. He developed a reputation for working with unorthodox sites, taming steep hills and rough coastlines by delivering unique rooms with a view. As his work evolved from steep A-frames and angular buildings to more rounded structures, his one constant was eschewing convention.

"I think I have the affinity to read a person's mind, lifestyle, and personality," he says. "You have to be tuned in to them, and I can do that. I try and think about all the factors in life that would feed the joy of living."

Still busy at 90—he sketches until late at night, going up and down the spiral staircase that leads to his office—Gesner is still working on new commissions, and currently designing an experimental, quick-build home for an unnamed client that wouldn't require a foundation. He says that he still starts every job as he always has, by sitting on the site, taking in whatever's being 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 room, framed by a massive curved series of windows, proved ideal backdrops to hearing him describe his practice and philosophy.

"In this house, every day is a new day, and you never get tired of it," he says. "There's something about the incredible view. See, there's three cargo ships out on the horizon. You see the lives passing by, the drama of it all. Every home needs a view, and a perspective."

Lower image via May 25, 1959 issue of Life Magazine

Cole House (Hollywood, California: 1954 )
Gesner helped make a name for himself by designing 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 took design cues from Polynesian huts, and featured steep roof, an illuminated pool, and bamboo curtains.
"Cole had asked a few architects to design the home, and I wasn't established yet, so I knew that I had a lot of competition. But I really wanted that job. The site was perfect for me: incredible view, difficult lot, set on a hillside. I sat down and drew for a solid week, working on something that would be suitable for him. I figured, he's flamboyant, he loves women, so I came up with a fun, playful design. I got it all together and went to his factory in downtown Los Angeles. This was where they butchered cattle, so it smelled pretty bad. I went up to the penthouse of the factory, where he lived at the time, and spread out all the drawings. I ended up getting the job, and in terms of notoriety, it made my name well known."

Eagle's Watch House (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner designed this home for the father of his friend, Dick Markowitz, using a striking laminated timber roof with a wing-like profile that perched on the hill. The building would later burn down in 1993, only to be rebuilt by Gesner four years later.
"The father of one of my friends in high school dealt in real estate, and had a piece of property in Malibu where he wanted to build an apartment building with a great view of the ocean, which of course, I'm always attracted to. He took me out and showed me the lot. He wanted six apartments, so I designed a building that fit the hillside. During the design process, I climbed the hill behind it, sat there to eat my lunch, and was stunned by the view. I thought, it's a great place for a home, but the only way you could go up there would be a ski tram. Well, I was a skier, and had a great teacher, Sepp Benedictor who came over from Austria to the U.S. to start up Sun Valley in Idaho. Sepp helped design a tram, and I convinced the owner to let me build a house. I named it Eagle's Watch because whenever I went up there, I saw an eagle circling overhead."

Cooper Wave House (Malibu, California: 1957)
Gesner's most famous design, which looks like a cresting wave when viewed from the water, was built for a man 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 designed the Sydney Opera House, was so taken by the home that he called Gesner long-distance to show his appreciation for the design.
"I built the Wave House around a series of curved, laminated beams. I wanted a shape like you'd find in the ocean. I really wanted something that was suitable to that site. Incidentally, it's a round house, even though it looks like a wave. I wanted a roof that formed to the curves, like scales on a fish. That's why it has a copper roof with shingles. Not just for the effect, but because it works. I designed it while sitting on a surfboard out by some rocks near the shore. I drew it on the board with a grease pencil."

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 incredible views..
"I was taken to those lots and told they were throwaway pieces of property in the Hollywood Hills. Since the incline was so steep, you couldn't really walk on them. Buck said he'd pay me $500 to design each house. There were 15, so I figured I'd do just one design. The way to do it was to design them in a way that you're drilling one hole into the hill and the homes rest on one beam, like a setting on a ring. After I designed them, I had to find someone who would build them on the hillside, since they'd have to do the work while they were suspended from ropes. By luck, I found a group of Norwegians shipbuilders who had been repairing churches. They worked with hand axes and saws, and really didn't speak English very well, except for one guy. But, they said they could do it, and for them, it was fun, just like building a ship in Norway.

Sandcastle House (Malibu, California: 1970)
The cylindrical Sandcastle House, made from stucco, wood, and salvaged material, sits next door to Gesner's masterpiece, the Wave House.
"I didn't want to compete with the house next door. I like to design outside of the box, to design something that fits in nature or that particular site. I wanted to design something that was fun, because I was very much in love with my wife, Nan Martin. I promised her that if she married me, I would design her a home 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 very fine one—packed up her apartment, and moved in with me.

"It's built in the round because I wanted to experiment with that shape. I found there's no lost space. Everything works in the round design. The focal points of the earliest habitats were the fire pits in the center. Go back through history: nests are round, everything is round, the Earth, planet solar system, it's all round. Why fight it?

"The fireplace was designed as a stage, I'd taken a clue from the design of the Hollywood Bowl, which reflects sound. Nan would sit on this hearth and give readings, and it worked out beautifully, because the shape of the fireplace forms a sound reflector. It was a perfect setting for an audience."

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