Iconic Perspectives: Harry Gesner’s Sandcastle
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.
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 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.
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
"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’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.
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
Learn more about the 2016 International Iconic Houses Conference here—where we were given the chance to tour this incredible home.