Harry Gesner floated peacefully in the Malibu surf atop his Velzy and Jacob balsa wood surfboard. No leash. No wetsuit. It was just him, the surf and the ocean breeze. It was a morning like countless others. As he waited for the next set of waves to arrive, he gazed over what was then an empty beach. And a vision struck him.
The next morning he paddled out to the same spot and with a grease pencil clenched in his teeth, he floated on his board and sketched a design right on the deck of the board. This was the beginnings of what would become the iconic architectural creation known as the Wave House.
The Wave House, with its sensual curves and copper-clad roof was unlike any other beach house and it quickly became a sensation. Architect Jorn Utzon credits the home as the inspiration for the renowned Sydney Opera House. The integration of the environment and human construction became the Gesner trademark for the numerous acclaimed works that followed. Gesner went on to build three more on that beach and a dozen more in nearby Las Flores Canyon.
“It came as a natural to design a house with the charisma and mystery of a wave,” says Gesner.
Although he mostly known for grand homes along the Pacific Coast Highway, Gesner also created distinctive designs in the Hollywood Hills. Two of those homes recently came to market, most notably one of the colony of Cahuenga Boathouses along the eastern slopes of the Hollywood Hills.
Wherever the site, Gesner sculpts his designs to fit the surrounding environment.
“It’s important to consider the location. Sit on the lot. Consider all of the elements. Whether the sun is rising over there, or over there. Wind. Mosquitos. All of the things that are environmentally correct for the site.”
In profiles from Architectural Digest to the New York Times, Gesner has often been called the most interesting architect in the world.
Looking over his life and accomplishments, it’s hard to dispute that claim.
Gesner has piloted planes and spent time as a downhill ski racer. He served in World War II where he sustained frostbite so severe that doctors were prepared to amputate. He managed to save his limbs through massage and an olive oil balm of his own concoction. Gesner has even lived as a real life Indiana Jones while working as an archeologist in Ecuador.
Even now, well into his eighties, you can still find Harry Gesner paddling out to the surf along the shores of his beloved Malibu.
Largely self-taught, Gesner did briefly attended architecture classes at Yale University. He once enrolled in a course taught by Frank Lloyd Wright only to drop the course soon after out of fear that Wright’s influence would bear to heavily on the young Gesner. Instead of a formal education, Gesner chose to learn architecture literally from the ground up, working as a mason, plumber and carpenter.
The fame from the Wave House and others quickly brought him to the attention of the celebrity elite. Gesner went on to build two homes for Marlon Brando, one in Beverly Hills and the other at the actor’s private Polynesion atoll. For 1960s swimsuit designer, Fred Cole, Gesner came up with a style he called “tiki hut modernism” fitting in perfectly with the tenor of the era.
Throughout his career, Gesner has remained a champion of preserving the environment. From the start, concern for sustainable and green building practices has been the centerpiece of a Gesner design. The Sandcastle, a Malibu beach house built over forty years and where he continues to live, was constructed largely from salvaged and recycled materials.
Despite his dim view of the state of our environment, Gesner remains an optimist with a belief that it is still possible to save the planet through innovation.
One recent project of his is the conversion of a 1957 Mercedes 190SL to electric power. With the new motor, the car has a range of nearly 90 miles with a single charge and can reach speeds up to 80 miles per hour. You can see Gesner sporting around the Pacific Coast Highway in his electric car in this video celebrating the release of his book. [http://vimeo.com/43662230]
In another venture, Gesner founded a company that produces teepees that he calls Autonomous Tents. The idea behind these tents is that they can be erected nearly anywhere and taken down without leaving a trace.
Although the tents are meant to be temporary, they may also be outfitted with luxurious amenities. In keeping with Gesner’s philosophy of harmony with nature, the Autonomous Tents are also built to withstand the forces of nature. These tents can survive hurricane force winds and heavy snow loads.
Gesner’s native curiosity and taste for invention runs deep in his blood. He comes from a long line of innovators. His relatives have contributed, among others, the Winchester repeating rifle, the automotive supercharger and stealth aircraft.
From his mother’s side, he inherited a deep appreciation for the land with family roots extending clear back to a Santa Barbara rancho granted by the King of Spain.
Gesner may be better known for grand coastal homes but he also built residences in the canyons of the Hollywood Hills.
This stunning property has four bedrooms, six bathrooms spread out over an open floor plan.
Cantilevered homes are a common sight in the Hollywood Hills and are often dismissed as characterless boxes. The Cahuenga Boathouse are anything but.
Originally built as a challenge to develop lots previously thought unbuildable, Gesner brought his love the sea inland. Most of these homes are located along Woodrow Wilson and Pacific View Drive on the western slopes of the Cahuenga Pass.
Viewed from below, the houses resemble boats peacefully moored to the steep canyons.
The distinctive six-sided shape not only aids the cantilever construction but also adds interest and volume to the interior space.
To further lend a hand built quality, Gesner employed Norwegian shipbuilders to shape the beams with axes.
The compact floor plan borrows much from the efficient layout of sea craft.
An open galley-like kitchen provides plenty of space without getting in the way.
Like many of his home, the living rooms of the Boathouses feature massive picture windows extending from floor to ceiling and run the width of the house. From the balcony, one can enjoy the expansive view over the Cahuenga Pass, across the San Fernando Valley to the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The Cahuenga Boathouse has 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom and new floors and carpeting.
And what is Gesner’s favorite creation? “It’s the one I’m working on.”
Macapa Drive courtesy of The Oppenheim Group, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Jason Oppenheim, Arlene Rutenberg and Joyce Rey.
Raven’s Eye courtesy of Prichet-Rapf & Associates and Vicki Salsberg.
Cahuenga Boathouse courtesy of Keller Williams Beverly Hills and Jimmy Bayan.