Well beyond El Matador Beach’s sea caves, past Zuma’s sanguine sands, almost out of Malibu proper up into that sparse 3300 stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, lays a small spate of homes designed by Harry M. Gesner. It’s surf country, and Gesner is no stranger to communing with the waves. In fact, just down the beach from his beloved Sandcastle, where he’s dwelled for some 45 years, you can view Gesner’s piece de resistance, The Wave House, which he originally sketched on a surfboard after gaining some divine providence from the sea.
Let’s recede a little: you pull off the PCH into the drive and ring the callbox down, down, way down to the beach, where Gesner will buzz the gate open. You’ll proceed 70 degrees downward, around a bend so tight you have to maneuver it in two parts (if you head straight through, you’ll end up right at Neil Diamond’s beach home, which Gesner also designed), to Sandcastle, which is built perfectly into a tract of rough-hewn beach. Surfers, Gesner’s actor son Zen amongst them, discuss big swells, while neighbors pop by and regale tall tales of Papua New Guinea river running adventures. Gesner soaks it all in, but you can tell he’s annoyed by his recent knee surgery. “I’ll get back out there,” he says, indicating to the Pacific. “I can’t surf like I used to, but I’ll get back out there.” His eyes gloss to the sea, and I imagine him in his wetsuit, paddling out to feel the waves, much like his architecture feels the earth.
Sandcastle, a sensible, circular home with a wide-angle view of Malibu’s pummeling sea, was made almost entirely from reclaimed material—Gesner’s conscionability towards the environment through his architectural practices far superceded the oil crises of the ‘70s, let alone the current trend of sustainable building. Gesner knows this, but coyly plays it off to sound like his material preferences were of fiscal necessity. “I found [materials] in Victorian houses where the freeway was going through,” he says, describing the wasteful nature of post-war advancement-obsessed America. “They just took them apart and if I could get there soon enough I would get the doors. The floors are from a gym in San Fernando—bird’s eye maple. It had a flash fire, and I went over and scraped the debris off the floor and found they were fine, so I took a big pry bar and ripped the floors out of the building.”
Harry Gesner is in the processing stage of his life. He has recently been thinking about his personal history, sorting through countless archives (his assistant Lisa, an estate management expert with a vested interest in architecture, recently marveled, “He kept everything”), in preparation of a retrospective-leaning book to be published by Abrams in the near future. “It’s at 380 pages—right now,” he says, slyly inferring the addition of several hundred pages would befit him. This is because Gesner loves the homes he’s built, which numbers a little over a hundred, a number that stayed relatively low—as a comparison, Frank Lloyd Wright’s name is on over 400 buildings—due to Gesner’s insistently hand’s-on approach during building.
Outside, Gesner is sitting on a round stone platform, eating a veggie burger, a “Harry Burger,” he jokes, when his face flashes discomfort. He swivels up, reaching for my hand. I tug him up. His knees. He grabs two pillows from some outdoor furniture and lays them in a triangular configuration that gives an impression of comfort. He sidles down onto the cushioned platform and allows the new coziness to wash over his face. Sandcastle is a lot like this platform: built in a flurry of activity to allow comfort on the side of a sandy hill. In fact, Gesner achieved a bit of notoriety in the ‘60s and ‘70s as the guy who could design a house to be built on plots of land that seemed uninhabitable. Sandcastle is, with its seclusion and its views and its lived-in ambiance and its easy layout, a perfect picture of comfort.
It wasn’t always comfort. Gesner joined the army in his teens and stormed Omaha, and later in the war, after being blasted by a tank, he faced amputation. However, Gesner refused the surgery, opting to massage olive oil onto his legs, and he recovered completely. After the war, he adventured down to South America to dig Inca artifacts, some of which still sit on shelves in his living room. He turned down Frank Lloyd Wright’s invitation to study at Taliesin West. “I didn’t want to follow other people’s footsteps,” Gesner says matter-of-factly. The next five years, he spent learning craft by working on construction crews, and before long, he was building the signature slanted stone adobe house for his parents in Tarzana, California in 1954.
With a few Los Angeles area homes under his belt, Gesner became the architect for swinging swimwear tycoon Fred Cole. “I should have trademarked those,” he says, his long finger tapping an old photograph of the home, which had a bamboo bead curtain wall which chimed in the wind, and clattered when one of Cole’s countless model girlfriends passed through them. Then came The Wave House, which Jørn Utzon later based his Sydney Opera House on. He built a home in 1966 for the inventor J.R. Scantlin with a lap pool that had an underwater entrance into the master bathroom—a feature architect Richard Meier, a later tenant, sealed up when a transient plunged through the opening, attired himself in Meier’s clothing, and was found smoking a cigar in the living room. And in the ‘80s, Gesner innovated a water-cooled air conditioning system for one Marlon Brando for his Tahitian estate, which remains unbuilt.
Gesner’s life and work is so full of lore, and yet, he remains relatively unsung outside the Californian architect community. He is concocting his book, but it’s just another step. As we sit talking, it is clear that Gesner’s eye is always to the future. He will never give in or give up. “I designed [Sandcastle] for my wife,” he shares, “who I was very much in love with. She just died last year. I wanted to design something that [she] and my son would be happy in, that we would all be happy in, and a circular house has a great feeling of peace and livability.” After all the bachelor pads, groovy apartment buildings, and treehouses, Gesner still thinks of comfort as the ideal in architecture.
Gesner’s selflessness doesn’t end there either. He builds for the world, as an architect with a strict philosophy of sustainable planning. To this day, he is a partner in VC&E, a company that champions an advanced process to turn garbage, sludge, and biomass into clean, carbon-neutral energy. “Not fast enough,” he opines on the alacrity in which architects are turning to sustainable building. He’s in the process of designing a new electric engine. And, like Walter Berglund in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, Gesner detests overpopulation. “Our biggest problem right now in this age is that we are overpopulated and we just use everything up. You have to look at nature, because wild animals will abstain from procreating if they sense that they are overpopulated in one area, and not having enough food. It’s as simple as that. We are just the opposite of that, and I fault religion, because there seems to be a battle between the religions in who has control. The only way they can maintain control—by having more people—in their religious way of thinking. [Ed. note: As recently as September of last year, Father Piero Gheddo, a high-powered Vatican official, urged Christians to have more children to counter the data that Europe was becoming “Islamized.”] It’s against all common sense, because that’s what causes famine, it causes wars. It all narrows down to overpopulation.”
Gesner still loves to spar with ignorance, he still loves to think and discourse about the state of the world. He lives way out there off the Pacific Coast Highway, in the coziness of his home, left with time to think, to create, to reflect. As we wind down our conversation, he looks to me and asks, “Are you leaving already?” He enjoys the company of his fellow man. He loves his time on earth, and having made his inexpungable mark on the history of Malibu architecture, he rests, his legs off to one side, in pure, blissful comfort, the kind that comes in with the tide like a piece of driftwood, nestled in the sand.