The Self-Taught Architect Who Became the “Modern Maverick of Malibu”

Southern California’s Harry Gesner, who died this month, crafted some of the Golden State’s most idiosyncratic homes.

California architect and surfer Harry Gesner drew inspiration from the ocean to create homes. At Malibu’s Wave House, perhaps his most famous design, soaring, copper-clad roof structures resemble cresting waves. His ability to think outside the box didn’t come from a college degree—he didn’t earn one—but instead from his curious nature.

Born in 1925 and raised in Southern California, Gesner served in the US Army during World War II before designing homes.

Gesner, who died on June 10 at age 97, never sat still. After serving in the US Army during World War II, he went on to become a television cartoonist, an archaeologist, and waterskiing instructor before studying architecture at Yale University under Frank Lloyd Wright. Gesner attended more of Wright’s lectures at Taliesin West in the Arizona desert, but soon tired of that, and, without a degree, struck out to learn from the real world.

Over the next decade he worked on builds alongside skilled tradesmen, gleaning experience as he went along. Gesner’s hands-on, observational approach was a constant throughout his career—he would spend endless hours on-site studying the wind, land, sun, and surroundings, developing a deep affinity for nature that lies at the heart of his work.

Harry Gesner designed the famous Wave House in Malibu in 1957. He came up with the idea while sitting on a surfboard and observing the site from the ocean, drawing the original concept sketches directly on the surfboard with a grease pencil. The copper-clad sails were an inspiration for the Sydney Opera House, a design Danish architect Jørn Utzon.

The homes he designed resemble waves, birds’ wings, and fish scales. Some of his most notable homes in Los Angeles include his own, The Sandcastle, the neighboring Wave House, the futuristic Triangle House, the grandiose Ravenseye House, designed for American playwright Jerome Lawrence, and the Boathouses in Hollywood. Even though he never became an accredited architect, his life’s work earned him a better title: The Modern Maverick of Malibu.

The ocean is a constant presence in Harry Gesner’s work. The Sandcastle was built by Gesner himself directly on the sand in Malibu in 1970. The windows that surround the circular structure reflect the ocean and allow the built form to become one with its surroundings.

The Sandcastle was first imagined when Harry Gesner proposed to his wife, Broadway actress Nan Martin. He promised he would build a house on the sand in Malibu and created a round design inspired by a sandcastle and centered around a brick fireplace. He built the home himself using salvaged materials, including redwood and maple timber, telephone poles, and brick—an approach that draws on his sustainable beliefs.

Gesner, shown here at his dining table at The Sandcastle, filled his home with cherished possessions that he gathered over a lifetime of traveling. He believed that round structures were one of the best ways to build, offering an efficient use of space and inherent strength. "Everything else in the universe is round and exists in cycles—plants, the sun, the way the planets orbit," he told Dwell in a 2016 interview.

Gesner continued to work throughout his life, always seeking new challenges and ways to improve the world. At the age of 91, he saw his design for the Autonomous Tent—a minimally invasive pop-up structure—realized at Treebones Resort in Big Sur.

"I made a big promise in World War II that if I survived, I’d do something great with my life, and not waste it," Gesner told Dwell in a 2016 interview. "Architecture is one of the best expressions a man can exhibit—to make life better for the human experience."

Dubbed Ravenseye House, this cinematic home was designed by Harry Gesner in 1997 for American playwright Jerome Lawrence. The 30-foot-high vaulted ceilings were reportedly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, and the expansive wall of glass is designed to frame sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

The Autonomous Tent doesn’t require a foundation, instead resting on a deck that is held to the ground with screws.

The Boathouses in Hollywood were designed by Gesner and built by Norwegian shipbuilders in the 1959. The quirky, boat-shaped residences cantilever out over a steep slope in the Hollywood Hills.


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