Living by design

Still surfing, designing homes and inventing, environmentally conscious Modernist architect Harry Gesner will celebrate his 87th birthday Saturday with a book signing and art show at the Malibu Lumber Yard.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

“Architect” does not even begin to describe the rich life, history, and accomplishments of Harry Gesner. But a new book, “Houses of the Sundown Sea: The Architectural Vision of Harry Gesner” by Lisa Germany, goes a long way toward it. In addition to his world-renowned architectural style, Gesner is a lifelong surfer, inventor and environmentalist who has lived in Malibu for more than 50 years. This Saturday, author and subject will be at the Malibu Lumber Yard from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. for a book signing and exhibition of Gesner’s architectural designs on his 87th birthday. The exhibit runs through mid-May.

While Gesner might not be a household name, he’s a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra. Like those Modernist masters, his work can be found predominantly in California. Danish architect J¿rn Utzon cited Gesner’s Cooper Wave House, built on Nicholas Canyon Beach (1957-59), as inspiration for his Sydney Opera House. It’s among four Gesners on that beach, with 12 more throughout Las Flores Canyon.

“When you have geological evidence of the earth itself, you should not blow them away, you should incorporate them into the house,” Gesner said, echoing Albert Frey’s aesthetic.

The difference between Gesner and the aforementioned architectural geniuses is that he is largely self-taught: “I’m a self-educated licensed architect. There aren’t that many around.”

Gesner’s unique style was apparent to his family.

“I’ll never forget growing up, his presentations to clients before computers,” recalled Zen Gesner, the architect’s youngest son. “He does everything freehand. His plans are pieces of art…They can hang at the Louvre.”

Gesner’s background is as fascinating as his work. Harry Gesner, Sr. was an archaeologist, engineer and inventor. “We lived on royalties from his patents,” Gesner said. Of Swiss/German descent, Gesner Sr. invented the automobile super-charger. Gesner’s uncle, Jack Northrop, created the flying-wing airplane, which led to the B-2 stealth bomber.

Of French/Basque heritage, the ancestors of his mother Elizabeth Harmer were some of Santa Barbara’s original settlers, including her grandfather, Albert Harmer, who painted early-Spanish life alongside cowboy-artist buddies Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.

Raised in Santa Monica Canyon, Gesner started surfing at age eight. (He still surfs, as do Zen and his three young sons.) After storming Normandy as a 19-year-old infantry soldier and fighting across Europe, Gesner emerged shell-shocked with frozen feet. He resisted when doctors wanted to amputate. Within six months, the skilled skier cured his condition via massage and oils.

Following World War II, Gesner had a choice: join Wright or Neutra. He declined both offers. “I didn’t want to be a clone,” said Gesner.

In the late 1940s he opened a studio in Tarzana.

“I have always been interested in the environment as the backdrop,” said Gesner, whose early work includes a Santa Barbara adobe “jutted out of the earth.” He applied Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome concept to a Leo Carrillo Beach residence on Mulholland, and designed “the only house you see over the Hollywood Bowl.” In 1966, Gesner created a bachelor pad with an indoor/outdoor pool for inventor Jack Scantlin on what is today Getty property, which Richard Meier incorporated into his Getty Center design as a conference room. Gesner also built a home and school on Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando’s atoll of seven islands, while the Brando film “Mutiny on the Bounty” was shooting.

After two decades in Tarzana, Gesner relocated his office to Malibu, inside a beachside house he designed with a studio atop a three-story tower, thanks to his fourth wife, actress Nan Martin (Mrs. Louder on “The Drew Carey Show”). Gesner was an old schoolmate of Martin’s who did not reconnect with her until the late-’60s, when alma mater Santa Monica High honored Martin.

“I saw her across the room, took her in my arms, and kissed her,” he recalled. “We started dancing…I asked her, ‘Are you hungry?’”

Two hours of conversation later, Gesner drove Martin from the Miramar Hotel’s coffee shop to Nicholas Canyon Beach in his 300 SL silver Mercedes Roadster. It was 3 a.m. when he told her, “I designed [the Cooper House] next door and I own this lot. If you marry me, I’ll design a home on this site.”

Martin moved from Manhattan to California, where they married on Valentine’s Day in 1970 and had Zen. She died on March 4, 2010.

“It was a fabulous marriage,” Gesner said. “I had screwed up all the other marriages.”

He had one child with each previous wife: engineer Jason Gesner, who oversees Boulder’s power grid; stepson Casey Dolan, an L.A. journalist/musician; and Vermont teacher Tara Tanzer. Malibu-based Zen, an actor, followed Martin into entertainment.

“It’s fantastic my father is getting some well-deserved recognition,” said Zen, referring to Germany’s new book.

In 2002, the architect, who inherited his father’s inventor genes, bought a 1957 190-SL Mercedes and converted it into an electric car that gets 100 miles per charge. “The first cars before the Model Ts were electric,” said Gesner, who is currently building two more. “I’m designing a new kind of electric engine [that will] turn the industry upside down.”

His passion for environmental sustainability has also transferred to his work, designing homes in California and Colorado.

“The only houses I will do now are off the grid,” Gesner said. “We can drill for our own water, use wind and solar energy for power, receive communications by satellite.”

As for Gesner’s masterpiece, it’s always “The one I’m working on.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

Related Articles



Latest Articles

%d bloggers like this: