On a recent Sunday morning I caught up with the architect/inventor Harry Gesner at his Malibu home. The Sandcastle, built in 1968, has a kind of handcrafted modern feel, with notes of surf shack and hobbit homespun. It sits next door to the Wave House, also designed by Gesner, which served as a big inspiration to the Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who went on to design the Sydney Opera House. The rocky stretch of beach where these homes are situated is sublime. There’s an intimacy with nature that’s inescapable. The mood of the sea stretches into the living space.
More spectacular than the homes, though, is Gesner himself. Ninety-four years old, vigorous blue eyes, raven’s wing of grey hair swooping across his forehead, lead singer physique, an outfit of head-to-toe black complete with skinny jeans and designer sneakers, Gesner has lived what my writer friend Chas Smith calls “the cinematic life.” He was a downhill ski racer. He fought in World War II — in fact he was on one of the first boats to land at Omaha Beach. “Surfing saved my life,” he told me. “I duckdove through all the rifle fire.” After the war he traveled to Ecuador, where he dug pre-Incan tombs and sold his loot to museums and private collectors. After that he audited architecture classes at Yale, got an offer to apprentice under Frank Lloyd Wright, turned it down ‘cause he’s a self-made man and a maverick, and committed himself to becoming a self-taught architect. He gave himself ten years. In less than five he was fully up and running — “I worked as a carpenter, learning everything there is to know about building. I can pick up any tool on the job and work right along with the journeymen, and I learned a great deal from them.” Gesner has designed over 100 homes. He’s been married four times. He has three kids. He emanates experience; he’s an inspiration and a spur.
In his rustic kitchen we sat down to talk, but the Hurley Pro webcast was on, and Kelly Slater was competing against Gabriel Medina and Owen Wright. Gesner started surfing in 1936, a San Onofre regular. He surfed voraciously up until four years ago, when he had his knees replaced. But he’s still a big fan. “The difference between Kelly and the others?” he said. “I’ll tell you. Kelly has a grace like no other. And he knows how to catch the right wave!” We watched. Kelly delivered. And after, when we got to talking, so did Gesner. Below are a few pearls.
“Designing a home begins with the site and the client as to what they want in the home. I have to go to the site. I sit on the site off and on for 24 hours, sketching. I see the sun rise and sun set and everything in between — the wind, the temperatures. I design to the site. Nature gives me all the clues.”
“We’ve got to get away from fossil fuel. We can’t have any more fossil fuel interaction with society — we’ll kill civilizations eventually, whether it’s oil or coal or whatever.”
“I always took the road least traveled in everything — whether it was surfing or skiing or whatever. It was always more of a challenge. I needed a challenge. I wanted to prove myself in every way I could. That is probably why I’m an innovative architect and an inventor. My father was an inventor and an engineer. My mother was a fine artist. So I had the right set of genes going on both sides.”
“I do most of my designing between 10 and 3 in the morning. And it goes like a snap of the fingers. It’s as if I am plugged into something else somewhere else. And it’s all done. The design is already done and there. And it just flows through me onto the board. And I only use a pencil. I have nothing to do with a computer. And I design to music, classical music.”
“Nature was the basic trigger for my intuitiveness, my talent, whatever it is. That and the genes I luckily got from both sides. I don’t want to sound like a nut,but the better the genes...”
“One interesting thing about architecture and drawing and putting it on paper: there are several times when I’ve arrived at a brick wall, saying, ‘Oh Christ, how am I going to figure that out?’ It never bothers me, ‘cause I know there’s an answer, with our limited mentality, there’s always an answer, and a good one. I will go to sleep on it, wake up in the morning, and it’s always there. The invention and the solution is going on all the time. You’re working on it even when you’re fast asleep.”
“My mind is going full blast, full tilt. In fact I seem to be speeding up — probably in the fact that I don’t want to run out of time, I want to get it all down. In other words, life is accelerating instead of slowing down. I trust my instincts.”
After our chat, Gesner brought me out to his backyard, which overlooks the surf break where he’s put in countless hours over the last half century. The sun was bright. Soft waves crashed on the shore. Sandpipers scuttled across wet sand. Clumps of seaweed emitted a primordial smell. Gesner told me about the time he was knee paddling along the shoreline when a pair of dolphins popped up on either side of him and grazed his hands, as if wanting to be petted. The following day he was out surfing when he found himself riding waves alongside a pod of dolphins.
“I thought that was one of the great moments in my surfing life,” he said.
We got onto the topic of inspiration hitting while in the midst of a surf. I told him that my writing brain keeps ticking in the water, and often I’ll have to get out and run to my car to write down whatever sentence or note-to-self.
Gesner laughed knowingly. “As I was waiting for a set, I used to take a grease pencil out in the surf and draw on the board the ideas I would get!”Photographs by Steven Lippman & Lisa Stoddard | Gesner Archives