Harry Gesner, the dashing architect and surfing enthusiast whose soaring designs celebrated California’s dramatic landscape in homes that straddled canyons, perched on beaches and cantilevered over cliffs, died June 10 at his home in Malibu, California, a whirlwind of a place called the Sandcastle. He was 97 years old.
The cause was complications from cancer, said Casey Dolan, her stepson.
Mr. Gesner, who grew up in California, knew how to ski and snowboard like a pro. He flew his first plane at age 14. Actress June Lockhart was his first love, during his senior year at Santa Monica High School – she went to Westlake, they met waterskiing – but their romance was cut short by his service in World War II . .
As an architect he was largely self-taught, although Frank Lloyd Wright invited him to study at Taliesin West, his estate and school in Scottsdale, Arizona. walls of glass, round, sunken living rooms, foyers, and peaked A-shaped roofs. They would define the landscape and aesthetic of Southern California and its freewheeling spirit, as much as the homes of John Lautneranother eclectic modernist, who designed the Chemosphereotherwise known as the House of the Flying Saucer, which floats above the hills of North Hollywood.
Mr. Gesner drew his most famous home while swinging on his long board in front of his eventual location in Malibu. Located on the beach of a secluded cove, the Wave House, built for his friend and fellow surfer Gerry Cooper, resembles a winged creature or crest of a wave. The hand-hewn round copper shingles on its vaulted roof resemble the scales of a fish.
The Wave House was built in 1957, the same year Danish architect Jorn Utzon won the competition to design the Sydney opera, and many have said, and continue to argue, that the Wave House was his inspiration. Mr Gesner said the resemblance was coincidental – although he recalled Mr Utzon calling him to compliment him on his design, which had been publicized around the world.
“I wish people didn’t insist on making something look like something else, but they do,” he told Lisa Germany for her book “Houses of the Sundown Sea” (2012), an investigation on the work of Mr. Gesner. “It’s human nature and a nuisance. An inspiring concept comes from a collection of bits and pieces of all that we experience in the act of daily living and that wonderful sauce, “the imagination”.
Harry Harmer Gesner was born on April 28, 1925 in Oxnard, California, west of Los Angeles. His father, Harry M. Gesner, was an inventor, engineer, and adventurer who, at age 16, rode with the Rough Riders, the volunteer cavalry led by Theodore Roosevelt during the Spanish–American War; surfed with Duke Kahanamoku, the first Hawaiian surfing star; and flew his own biplane. Harry’s mother, Ethel (Harmer) Gesner, was an artist, the daughter of Alexander Harmer, a famous landscape painter from Southern California. A great-great-grandfather was José de la Guerra, a wealthy Spanish military commander and landowner in Santa Barbara known as El Capitan, and one of Mr. Gesner’s uncles was Jack Northrop, the designer aircraft manufacturer, engineer and industrialist who created the prototype for what would become the B-2 stealth bomber.
Mr Gesner was 19 when he landed on Normandy beach, dodging waves from the side of a landing craft. The experience marked him forever; he was, he said years later, “grossly changed from a boy to a man after about a minute with the injured, dying, and near-dead members of my team”.
He survived D-Day but nearly lost his legs to frostbite along the German line. He sketched as he walked, capturing the aqueducts, churches and castles of Europe, noting their Gothic details.
Upon his release, he spent six months at Yale auditing an architecture course taught by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was then a visiting professor. Wright invited Mr. Gesner to study with him at Taliesin, but Mr. Gesner boarded a freighter instead and headed to the Equator, where he excavated pre-Inca artifacts. He then traveled to Mexico City, where he met actor Errol Flynn at a bar. Flynn asked him to help bring his yacht, Sirocco, back to California, but the departure date kept getting pushed back, so Mr. Gesner went home.
He worked for another uncle, an architect, as an apprentice to the builders, then began designing his own homes.
For his parents and an aunt, Mr. Gesner designed adobe brick houses laid at an angle. Nestled in their landscapes, they seemed to come out of the ground. For a developer, he built a glassy rhomboid, located on a ridge above the Malibu coast. For a family with a small site in a canyon, he built a house like a bridge – or an aqueduct – that spans two slopes.
For Fred Cole, the swimwear mogul, he designed a double A-frame bachelor pad with Tahitian touches – for its glass walls, Mr. Gesner designed “curtains” of bamboo and glass beads – and l ‘perched on a meager site overlooking Sunset Boulevard that engineers had declared impossible to build on.
Mr. Gesner would become the go-to architect for many well-heeled Hollywood bachelors. John Scantlin—whose company invented the Quotron, the first magnetic-stripe stock market system that replaced the old ticker machines—requested only a bedroom, living room, small kitchen, and bar (as well as a garage for three cars and tennis courts). The bathroom was a cave, with the toilet tucked away in a forest of ferns, and the house was surrounded by a pool, from which one could swim into the cave.
One project that never left the drawing board was a resort for Marlon Brando, to be built on the French Polynesian atoll he had purchased after filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the early 1960s. was to be powered by wind turbines and solar panels and cooled by a giant aquarium that Brando wanted filled with sharks and moray eels. Trunks of giant palm trees were to serve as buttresses for several roofs, which were to be sheathed with pandanus leaves. Brando also wanted a mini-version of this fantasy island for his Beverly Hills property. As Mr. Gesner told Architectural Digest in 2008it was hard to keep the actor focused.
“It was very bedroom-focused and it all evolved from there,” he said. “Suddenly, in the middle of a discussion, a beautiful Asian model walked in and Marlon disappeared for half an hour. I just sat there and read a book.
Mr. Gesner used sustainable materials long before it was fashionable. The sandcastle he built for himself and his fourth wife, the actress Nan Martin, on the secluded Malibu creek right next to the Wave House, was made from salvaged wood from a high school that had burned down and marble from bathhouses about to be demolished. He used old telephone poles to support his tower – Ms Germany, the author of ‘Houses of the Sundown Sea’, described the place as looking like ‘a Dutch windmill, a Spanish lighthouse, a Hobbit dwelling “. Mr. Gesner called it a home for “two creative and very much in love adults, a little boy and a Labrador retriever.”
In addition to his stepson, Mr. Gesner is survived by his daughter, Tara Tanzer-Cartwright; two sons, Jason and Zen; and five grandchildren. His marriages to Audrey Hawthorne, Patti Townsend and Patricia Alexander ended in divorce. Ms. Martin died in 2010.
In the 1990s, Mr. Gesner converted his beloved silver 1959 Mercedes 190 SL cabriolet into an electric vehicle. He had three patents for a system to turn solid waste into fuel, and in his later years he worked on designs for cast concrete and wood structures designed for extreme weather conditions. “Houses that survive”, he called them.
“They will withstand the worst elements,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “Hurricanes, of course. Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Termites and sunspots. Besides withstanding a volcanic river of molten rock, I believe we can solve all of our problems through good design, sensible, practical design that takes all the elements into account.