Iconic Perspectives: Harry Gesner’s Sandcastle

The entire lineup of this year's Los Angeles Iconic Houses tours was filled with irreplaceable works of architecture, but the Sandcastle is on a whole other level—thanks to the inspiring man responsible for bringing it to life.

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One of the reasons why touring this home during the conference was so special, was because the architect who designed and built the house with his own hands was there to welcome us with open arms. As the program's guest of honor, the 91-year-old Harry Gesner opened his doors and sat down with us to guide us through the story of the Sandcastle and the lifelong passion he’s held for architecture and Mother Nature. 

Watch this video to meet Gesner himself and to hear the story of his beloved Sandcastle straight from the source.

The story of the Sandcastle begins with a man who has lived a life filled with adventure. Born in 1925 and raised in Southern California, he grew up surfing as much as he could. Along with serving in World War II, he also spent time as a television cartoonist in New York, an archeologist, water skiing instructor, and a seeker of challenges. His love for surfing and the ocean has continued throughout his entire life and has become a vital inspiration for his architectural work.

For Harry Gesner, iconic design is born when the creator isn't afraid to step up to a challenge. He believes good design goes hand-in-hand with a love of nature and a passion for life and adventure. Case in point, the Sandcastle was built by Gesner himself and was created to be one with the ocean. Looking up from the sand in Malibu, this shot peers directly into the circular residence. 

Photo: Emma Geiszler

After he returned from the war, he studied architecture at Yale University, where he grabbed the attention of Frank Lloyd Wright, the acclaimed architect who was teaching there at the time. Gesner turned down an offer to study under Wright and instead, decided to discover his own path by taking ten years to learn from a number of tradesmen throughout the building industry—including carpentry and stonemasonry. He began requesting to work as an apprentice on building sites and learned firsthand through these experiences. 

Gesner’s philosophy of architectural design is deeply intertwined with nature—which has stayed consistent throughout his entire career. A detached piece of the house sits directly next to the main structure and holds Gesner’s extensive archive from the last 70 years.  

Photo: Emma Geiszler

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Gesner went on to design some of L.A.’s most unexpected, memorable structures that truly capture the essence of Southern California architecture—including the Scantlin House, Stegel House, Triangle House, Cole House, Eagle's Watch House, the Hollywood Boathouses, and the Wave House that sits directly next door to the Sandcastle.

Gesner (shown here at his dining table) welcomed us into his house to explore his cherished possessions that he's gathered over a lifetime of traveling. He believes that round design is one of the easiest and best ways to build, since you don’t lose valuable space or sacrifice having a strong structure. "Everything else in the universe is round and exists in cycles—plants, the sun, the way the planets orbit," he reasoned. 

The Sandcastle was first imagined when he proposed to his wife Nan Martin, a Broadway actress working out of New York City at the time. He promised her that if she married him, he’d build her a house right on the sand in Malibu—she said "yes." He created a round structural design that’s inspired by a sandcastle and centered around a substantial brick fireplace. He couldn’t afford to have someone build the house for him, so he built it for himself. He used salvaged materials from forgotten buildings or junkyards including redwood, telephone poles, brick, and maple. This speaks to his strong belief that we should do everything we can to reuse and repurpose natural materials in order to take care of this earth. He pointed out, "Redwood is nature’s permanent wood. It's forever."

"I got most of the materials second-hand or in the junkyard. These salvaged materials ended up being stronger than new ones." - Gesner

The main house rotates around a large fireplace, where Gesner’s late wife Nan Martin used to perform for friends and family. The bones of the space is made up of old-growth redwood that was cut in the 1800s, reused telephone poles, and reclaimed wood that’s been turned into door frames, window frames, and floors.  

Photo: Emma Geiszler

"I couldn’t afford to have someone build it for me, so I built it myself." - Gesner 

While he was gathering the resources to build the house, he encountered multiple examples of abandoned constructions in the area where he was able to gather forgotten materials. Specifically, he discovered a large amount of brick from houses that had collapsed in a recent earthquake. He also created panel walls made from aqueduct pipes from another project he was working on in Northern California. The Birdseye maple floors were found in a high school gym that was destroyed by a fire. Finally, he personally collected doors and windows from an old silent film theater that was closing on Hollywood Boulevard.

"I made a big promise in WWII that if I survived, I’d do something great with my life, and not waste it. Architecture is one of the best expressions a man can exhibit—to make life better for the human experience." - Gesner

Gesner believes that "surfing, the environment, and architecture go hand-in-hand. We should take cues from the environment and the natural elements." Gesner used to sit on sites for hours in order to get the feeling of these elements before diving into the design.

Photo: Emma Geiszler

Gesner never threw away any piece of paper he drew on. All of his sketches and notes had been sitting in cardboard boxes underneath the house for years, until his assistant helped him archive all of it from the last 70 years. 

Photo: Emma Geiszler

Gesner’s thirst for a good challenge continues to this day. He was proud to tell us about the Autonomous Tent, which he designed to be a temporary structure that has no foundation, but is strong enough to be a s0lid, comfortable home. It contours with the land and can be packed up without leaving a trace on the earth. You can learn more about it here.

Additionally, he’s been working with legendary surfer Kelly Slater, a good friend of his who’s become one of the most respected names in the history of surfing. He’s working with him to design the architectural master plan of Slater’s Wave Lodge where his giant artificial waves will be found.

The Wave House sits directly next to the Sandcastle on the sands of Malibu. When Gesner created it in 1957, the design had originally been born when he drew the shape of the house on his surfboard with a piece of grease pencil while he was waiting for the perfect wave. When he got back to land, he transferred it to a drawing pad and vellum before turning it into a reality. He found inspiration in the way a giant wave embraces you—and how you become a part of it. The roof is lined with copper shingles that are layered in a way that gives the impression of fish scales. 

Photo: Emma Geiszler

I like to find a challenge in everything—to break new ground or take on the impossible. The bigger the problem, the better the solution. - Gesner

The house blends perfectly into the land, just as Gesner had wanted. He finishes his story with, "The Sandcastle is a dream place—built with love." 

Photo: Emma Geiszler

Learn more about the 2016 International Iconic Houses Conference here—where we were given the chance to tour this incredible home.


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