Harry Gesner’s extraordinary architecture remembered

Harry Gesner spent his life pursuing his two passions: architecture and surfing. Gesner, the noted architect and Malibu native, died last month at the age of 97. Contributed Photo.

The late architect Harry Gesner not only led an adventurous life, he designed some of the most adventurous, exotic-looking homes ever; many of them right here in Malibu. The world-renowned architect died in June at his beloved Malibu home, the Sandcastle, at the age of 97. He’s being remembered as the man who “changed the landscape of Malibu.”

Though most of Gesner’s creations are found throughout the Los Angeles area, many of them are right along the coastline near his own family home. 

“He was deeply connected to Malibu and that goes back to his childhood,” said his stepson, Casey Dolan. “He would surf in the 1940s and had a strong emotional connection to the ocean and hillsides.”

After finishing Santa Monica High School, at 17, Gesner enlisted in the Army in World War II. He flew bombers but was eventually deployed on the ground at Omaha Beach for the invasion of Normandy. Gesner once said that his prior surfing experience helped save his life on D-Day when so many others perished. 

“If I hadn’t surfed my whole life, there would be no way I would have made it,” Gesner once explained about how he evaded enemy fire. 

Later he would go on to fight in what Winston Churchill called “the greatest American battle of the war,” the Battle of the Bulge. There, Gesner was badly injured, almost losing both legs.

After the war, a life of adventure began. Gesner, initially a self-taught architect, studied briefly with Frank Lloyd Wright, who invited him to join him at his famous Taliesin West school. Gesner passed up the offer to go to Ecuador in search of pre-Columbian artifacts. He even worked for a short while for Erroll Flynn, helping him yacht from Mexico to the United States.

By the 1950s, Gesner made a name for himself as a mid-century modern architect, creating dynamic residences with an aeronautic flair — maybe something he picked up from his uncle, John K. Northrop, the famous aircraft designer. Many Gesner homes feature giant wing-like angles or arches. He’s also known for the Boathouses in Hollywood. These irregularly shaped, angled residences are perched over a steep hillside once considered “throwaway property.” The Boathouses are noted for their million-dollar views and engineering marvel Gesner achieved that with the help of Norwegian shipbuilders who put their expertise to work.

Gesner’s style used organic shapes more than the typical modernists at the time. 

“Harry didn’t descend from the Bauhaus legacy of strict geometric shapes. Harry loved curves,” Dolan remarked.

That style is reflected in Gesner’s best-known masterpiece, the Wave House in Malibu. The home, evocative of the surf below it, is featured in scores of print advertisements, videos, and movies. Its series of curved beams became the inspiration for one of the world’s most famous buildings, the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

Next door to the Wave House, Gesner built his own family home, the Sandcastle. The three-story tower constructed of much reclaimed material has been featured in numerous ads and movies as well. Its spacious living room features a 180-degree view of the ocean. 

“Inside you feel you’re in something between a castle and a pagoda,” Dolan said. “It has an intimate kitchen where the family and friends congregated. It’s filled with fireplaces. The home has great curves, great arcs.” Gesner’s son, Zen, recalled growing up in the Sandcastle as “magical.”

On the southern end of Malibu, Eagle’s Watch in La Costa features a soaring bow that looks like an eagle about to take flight. Across the canyon is another Gesner creation, also visible from Pacific Coast Highway. Raven’s Eye features huge gothic-style windows under a sloping roof. Inside is a sweeping staircase down to the expansive living area. 

“The windows are spectacular and the views from the front deck are one of a kind like a lot of my father’s work,” Zen Gesner said. “He never did the same thing twice. Every house was built around the environment. Each is as unique as a thumbprint.”

Gesner was a character. He never retired and continued designing and surfing late into his life. He was known to have sketched homes while sitting atop his surfboard in the ocean. When he caught a big wave, Zen said, his father yodeled “from the moment he caught the wave until he stepped onto the beach.” In his later years Gesner wore a surfing helmet that he adorned with abandoned seagull feathers.

“He was an idealist to the end,” Dolan concluded. “He never gave up believing that humanity had a chance. All his work was toward creating a better world to live in.”