Architect Harry Gesner, known for the Wave House, dies at 97

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To design a great home, Californian architect Harry Gesner believed in spending time on the property, not on the drawing board. While working on a home for one of his high profile clients – a logging baron, a swimsuit mogul, a Hollywood legend with eight Oscar nominations to his name – he would spend hours on site, studying the wind and the sun and seeking inspiration from the view.

For a Malibu beach house he was designing in the 1950s, he took to the sea, paddling his surfboard to survey property from a spot beyond the breaking waves. From there, he made the first drawings of what became his most famous building, the Wave House, using a grease pencil to draw its curved, wave-like roof directly onto his longboard.

Mr. Gesner’s designs were inspired by the shape of a sandcastle, the wings of a bird and the scales of a fish. Their unorthodox appearance reflected the adventurous spirit of an architect who once had a romantic relationship with actress June Lockhart while performing waterskiing stunts on Lake Arrowhead, and then survived the invasion. of D-Day in Normandy thanks to a surfing technique, the diving duck, which he used. to avoid enemy fire while heading towards Omaha Beach.

Over the years, Gesner has also worked as a deckhand on actor Errol Flynn’s yacht, researched ancient artifacts in Ecuador, hunted the tomb of conquistador Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, and tinkered with inventions, designing a Kentucky processing plant in the 1960s that processed waste. fertilizer and converting his 1957 Mercedes convertible into an electric car more than five decades after it was purchased.

But above all, he designed houses, seeking to create environmentally friendly homes that served as a source of joy, not just shelter. To this end, he often added surprises to his buildings: for the Scantlin House, located in what is now the Getty Center in Los Angeles, he designed a lap pool that spanned nearly 100 feet, culminating in a waterfall of water that hid an underwater passage leading to the main bathroom of the house.

“You come around the corner, look in an alcove and see something you like…it takes the drudgery and the boredom out of life,” he once told the Los Angeles Times, explaining his fondness. for unexpected fulfillment.

Mr. Gesner was 97 when he died on June 10 at the Sandcastle, the mushroom-shaped house he had built for himself in Malibu, right next to the Wave House. The cause was cancer, said her stepson, Casey Dolan.

Although he took commissions across the country, Mr. Gesner was best known for his mid-century designs in Southern California, which often featured curved walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and natural materials like stone. fields of Santa Barbara and bird’s eye maple. His houses were often located in unusual places, embedded in the narrow walls of a canyon or pushed above a rocky beach.

“The challenge is what is exciting in architecture,” he said in a 2016 interview with Dwell magazine. “People were always saying, ‘Well, that’s terrible. It is an impossible place to build. And I was like, ‘No – just watch.’ ”

To build the Hollywood Boathouses, more than a dozen angular houses cantilevered over Cahuenga Pass, he sought craftsmen who could work on the hillside suspended by ropes.

“Luckily, I found a group of [Norwegian] shipbuilders who repaired churches,” he said. Curbed website. “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.

Mr Gesner’s buildings won him the admiration of architects including Jorn Utzon, who is said to have modeled his design of the Sydney Opera House in part after the Wave House, and Richard Meier, who lived at the Scantlin house and insisted on its preservation while overseeing the construction of the Getty Center.

His work has also led to commissions by discerning clients. In 1980, Marlon Brando hired Mr. Gesner to renovate his Beverly Hills mansion and design an estate on Tetiaroa, the actor’s private atoll in French Polynesia, where Mr. Gesner laid out plans for an island getaway that included a roof covered in woven pandanus leaves, a floor made from polished coral, and an 18-meter-long aquarium that the actor planned to fill with sharks and moray eels.

But plans fell apart after Brando changed his mind about what he wanted, according to Mr Gesner. In an interview with Architectural Summary, he described the actor as “very bedroom-focused”, adding that their conversations were often interrupted by a visitor: Marlon would disappear for half an hour. I was just sitting there and reading a book.

As Mr. Gesner said, he was uniquely suited to become an architect, coming from a family with deep roots in art and engineering. His grandfather Alexander Harmer was one of Southern California’s leading 19th-century painters, and his uncle Jack Northrop was an influential aircraft designer who helped develop stealth aircraft and long-range bombers.

“The genes,” Mr. Gesner liked to say, “were all in line for me.”

The eldest of two sons, he was born Harry Harmer Gesner in Oxnard, California on April 28, 1925. His mother was an artist whose great-grandfather had served the Spanish and Mexican governments as head of the presidio of Santa Barbara, and her father was an engineer who raced cars, flew planes, and surfed Hawaii with Duke Kahanamoku. When he landed a job with Douglas Aircraft, the family moved to Santa Monica.

Mr. Gesner developed an interest in architecture while delivering newspapers, admiring the varied design of homes on his paper route. He then filled notebooks with sketches of European castles and cathedrals he saw while serving in the army during World War II.

According to Lisa Germany’s book ‘Houses of the Sundown Sea’, an investigation into his career, Mr Gesner was injured in an artillery attack in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest and nearly lost both his legs to of frostbite before being sent home in 1944 to recuperate. . He then studied at Yale University, where he audited an architecture course and made drawings that impressed Frank Lloyd Wright, who invited him to study at his school in Arizona.

Mr. Gesner turned him down, seeking to develop his own style while learning from an uncle in Santa Barbara who introduced him to carpenters and stonemasons, craftsmen who taught him the basics of building.

He designed an adobe house for his parents in Los Angeles, and in 1954 completed one of his first major commissions, a Hollywood bachelor pad for swimsuit executive Fred Cole. Loosely inspired by traditional Polynesian huts, the house featured a steep roof, bamboo curtains and a triangle-shaped pool with a gas jet that sent flames into the air. “In terms of notoriety,” Mr. Gesner said of the project, “it got my name out there.”

Mr. Gesner’s marriages to Audrey Hawthorne, Patty Townsend and Pat Alexander ended in divorce. In 1968, he attended a reception honoring one of his former high school classmates, actress Nan Martin, who lived in New York and had a son, Casey Dolan, from a previous marriage. She later recalled Mr. Gesner looking at her from across the room and saying, “I’ve been waiting for you all my life.”

She quickly packed up and moved in with him in California, where they were married in 1969. Mr. Gesner built them a new home, the Sandcastle, which featured a large brick chimney designed to reflect sound, so that Martin can give home readings. She died in 2010.

In addition to her stepson, of Port Townsend, Washington, survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Tara Tanzer-Cartwright of Proctorsville, Vt.; a son from his third marriage, Jason Gesner of Burgdorf, Colorado; a son from his fourth marriage, Zen Gesner of Malibu; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Gesner continued working into his 90s, developing a new windmill design and an eco-friendly structure called the Freestanding Tent, which is meant to withstand heavy snowfall and high winds. He said he had no interest in retiring.

“I’m looking for a way to be reborn, you know, physically,” he told Vanity Fair in 2007, at age 82. “My father, he was fabulous. At the time of his death, he was 80 years old. He’d had a massive heart attack, and I was there by his side, and he was like, ‘Harry…I can’t wait for the next experience.’ That says it all.

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