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Architect Harry Gessner Dead at 97

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Publication date 25 July 2022

Architect Harry Gessner Dead at 97

The architect Harry Gesner on the deck of his most famous building, the Wave House, which sits on the beach of a secluded cove in Malibu, California. Photo Steven Lippman. 

On June 10, architect Harry Gesner passed away at his home, the Sandcastle in Malibu, California. He was 97. The New York Times obituary describes him as “the dashing, surf-loving architect whose soaring designs celebrated California’s dramatic landscape in houses that straddled canyons, perched over beaches, and cantilevered from cliffs."

Boat Houses
Anyone who has ever taken a road trip in California or house-hunted in Los Angeles, has most likely passed the remarkable Gesner-designed Boat Houses in Hollywood. Completed in 1959, they perch on the hillside above Cahuenga Pass along Pacific View Drive and Woodrow Wilson Drive. Gesner hired Norwegian shipbuilders to help construct the small, quirky, boat-shaped residences that cantilever out over a steep slope in the Hollywood Hills. Angelinos know these landmarks, yet hardly anyone knows the name of the architect.

Boat Houses in the Cahuenga Pass, Los Angeles, Harry Gesner, 1959. Photo Cody James. 

I was already intrigued by these creations, but only found out that Harry Gesner had designed them when I started preparing our conference in 2015 with Susan Macdonald, our partner at the Getty Conservation Institute. Susan suggested we hold the VIP Reception at the Getty's Trustee House. Originally called Scantlin Villa, built in 1965, this house was now only used by scholars on very special occasions. During the period when the mega project for the Getty Museum was in full swing, the villa was not demolished but preserved at the request of architect Richard Meier.

Harry Gesner was our Guest of Honour at the 4th International Iconic Houses Conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 2016.

Harry Gesner – in conversation Trudi Sandmeier, Director, Graduate Programs in Heritage Conservation and Associate Professor of Practice at USC Architecture. 

"The challenge is what is exciting in architecture"
I wanted to see the house first to avoid disappointing our guests because with Iconic Houses the bar is naturally quite high. It certainly passed the test! It turned out that its architect was still alive (born 1925), but he did not have a website and it was not easy to find him. In the end, I managed to get in touch with him through a project partner. Self-promotion is of course very important if you are an architect, but Harry preferred surfing and despite the lack of PR he has managed to realize an impressive portfolio of unique and eccentric houses in and around LA. You can read about this in the bold book Houses of the Sundown Sea: The Architectural Vision of Harry Gesner.

In his first e-mail, dated 1 May 2015, he introduced himself to me with these words:
“I used to surf every day at sunset and commune with nature and the setting Sun. Summer & Winter, Spring and Fall. The Sun is my surrogate God. Our solar system revolves around it and it’s our source of all living things. Makes living much more simple and less religious bickering and wars about worshiping different gods. Being brought up a Catholic really turned me off of the formal religion business. I better change the subject before you think I’m a total nut case.
I just spent a couple of hours on your web site. You have quite a thing going with the Iconic homes. There are many more than I ever thought existed. My architectural education centered around my work and learning the trades. Not studying other people’s work as taught in schools. I’m a totally self-taught Licensed Architect! I somehow slipped through the cracks and convinced them by my works that I was legitimate! Common sense must have played a part too.”

Breaking New Grounds
My first meeting at his house was immediately fun: we were picked up by a golf cart that took us down the steep slope from the driveway to the house. And there I met a completely authentic 91-year-old man. A born storyteller, whose great love Nan Martin always came up in conversation. And his love for the ocean, the sun, and surfing, which was contagious. Plus his experience of World war II, whic made him promise himself to make something of his life and not waste it. Not to mention how to use our natural resources to save the planet -the walls in his kitchen were made from reused aqueduct pipes, redwood from the 1800s- and his concern for the preservation of the earth and his initiatives to make a positive contribution.

We have documented some interesting conversations and beautiful moments with Harry. By watching them you’ll also get to know him.
"I like the impossible" he said, and that's what I liked so much about Harry.
I'll miss Harry and his maverick spirit.
Natascha Drabbe

The Sandcastle in Malibu, Harry Gesner's own house. Photos: Natascha Drabbe. 

In Iconic Perspectives: Harry Gesner’s Sandcastle, our media partner Dwell documented Harry Gesner and his Sandcastle in a fantastic way.

DWELL Iconic Homes: The Sandcastle by Harry Gesner. 

Jim Cuno, President, and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in conversation with architect Harry Gesner, at the Gesner-designed Scantlin House (1965) on the current Getty Hill, which is now known as the Getty's Trustee House. Prior to the 4th International Iconic Houses Conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, 17-19 February 2016.

Q&A between Jim Cuno and Harry Gesner. 

In advance of the Iconic Houses Conference at the Getty, the visionary architect talked about his legacy and his current and future architectural plans to Jane Szita, in her blog of 4 February 2016: Modernism’s Maverick: A Conversation with Harry Gesner.

Publication date 25 July 2022