Harry Gesner, Architect of Soaring California Style, Dies at 97

Harry Gesner, Architect of Soaring California Style, Dies at 97

Harry Gesner, 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, died on June 10 at his home in Malibu, Calif., a whorl of a place called the Sandcastle. He was 97.

The cause was complications of cancer, said Casey Dolan, his stepson.

Mr. Gesner, who was raised in California, could ski and surf like a pro. He flew his first plane at 14. The actress June Lockhart was his first love, during his senior year at Santa Monica High School — she went to Westlake, they met water-skiing — but their romance was interrupted by his service in World War II.

As an architect he was largely self-taught, though Frank Lloyd Wright invited him to study at Taliesin West, his estate and school in Scottsdale, Ariz. His shiplike houses, which were often built by Norwegian shipbuilders, were distinctly, excitingly Californian, with walls of glass, round, sunken living rooms, fire pits and peaked A-frame roofs. They would define the Southern California landscape and aesthetic and its freewheeling ethos, as much as the houses of John Lautner, another eclectic modernist, who designed the Chemosphere, otherwise known as the flying saucer house, which floats above the North Hollywood Hills.

Mr. Gesner sketched his most famous house while bobbing on his long board in front of its eventual site in Malibu. Set on the beach of a secluded cove, the Wave House, built for his friend and fellow surfer Gerry Cooper, looks like a winged creature, or a cresting wave. The hand-cut round, copper shingles on its vaulted roof are like the scales of a fish.

The Wave House was built in 1957, the same year the Swedish architect Jorn Utzon won the competition to design the Sydney Opera House, and many declared, and continue to maintain, that the Wave House had been his inspiration. Mr. Gesner said the resemblance was coincidental — though he did recall Mr. Utzon calling to compliment him on his design, which had been publicized all over the world.

“I do wish people would not insist that something looks like something else, but they do,” he told Lisa Germany for her book “Houses of the Sundown Sea” (2012), a survey of Mr. Gesner’s work. “It’s human nature and a bore. An inspirational concept comes from a collection of parts and pieces of all we experience in the act of everyday living and that wonderful sauce, ‘imagination.’”

Harry Harmer Gesner was born on April 28, 1925, in Oxnard, Calif., west of Los Angeles. His father, Harry M. Gesner, was an inventor, engineer and adventurist who at 16 rode with the Rough Riders, the volunteer cavalry led by Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War; surfed with Duke Kahanamoku, the early Hawaiian surfing star; and flew his own biplane. Harry’s mother, Ethel (Harmer) Gesner, was an artist, the daughter of Alexander Harmer, a noted landscape painter of Southern California. A great-great-grandfather was José de la Guerra, a wealthy Spanish military commander and landowner in Santa Barbara known as El Capitan, and one of Mr. Gesner’s uncles was Jack Northrop, the aircraft designer, engineer and industrialist who created the prototype for what would become the B-2 stealth bomber.

Mr. Gesner was 19 when he landed on the beach at Normandy, ducking through the waves from the side of a landing craft. The experience marked him forever; he was, he said years later, “rudely changed from a boy to a man after about a minute with the wounded, dying and about to be dead members of my squad.”

He survived D-Day but nearly lost his legs to frostbite fighting along the German line. He sketched as he marched, capturing the aqueducts, churches and castles of Europe, noting their Gothic details.

On his discharge, he spent six months at Yale auditing an architecture class taught by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a visiting professor at the time. Wright invited Mr. Gesner to study with him at Taliesin, but Mr. Gesner boarded a freighter instead and headed to Ecuador, where he excavated pre-Incan artifacts. He then headed to Mexico City, where he ran into Errol Flynn at a bar. Flynn asked him to help take his yacht, Sirocco, back to California, but the departure date kept being put off, so Mr. Gesner went home.

He worked for another uncle, an architect, as an apprentice to the builders and then began designing his own houses.

For his parents and an aunt, Mr. Gesner designed houses made from adobe bricks laid at an angle. Nestled into their landscapes, they looked as if they were growing out of the ground. For a developer, he built a glassy rhomboid, set on a ridge over the Malibu coast. For a family with a small site in a canyon, he built a house like a bridge — or an aqueduct — that spans two slopes.

For Fred Cole, the swimwear magnate, he designed adouble A-frame bachelor pad with Tahitian touches — for its walls of glass, Mr. Gesner designed “curtains” made from bamboo and glass beads — and perched it on skinny site overlooking Sunset Boulevard that engineers had claimed was impossible to build on.

Mr. Gesner would become the go-to architect for many of Hollywood’s well-heeled bachelors. John Scantlin — whose company invented the Quotron, the first magnetic-tape-based stock market system, which replaced the old ticker-tape machines — asked only for a bedroom, a living room, a small kitchen and a wet bar (as well as a three-car garage and tennis courts). The bathroom was a grotto, with the toilet tucked into a forest of ferns, and the house was surrounded by a pool, from which one could swim into the grotto.

One project that never left the drawing board was a compound for Marlon Brando, to be built on the French Polynesian atoll he had bought after filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the early 1960s. It was to be powered by windmills and solar panels and cooled by a giant aquarium that Brando wanted filled with sharks and moray eels. Giant palm trunks were to be flying buttresses for multiple roofs, which were to be sheathed in pandanus leaves. Brando also wanted a mini-version of this island fantasy for his property in Beverly Hills. As Mr. Gesner told Architectural Digest in 2008, it was hard to keep the actor focused.

“He was very bedroom-oriented, and everything evolved from there,” he said. “Suddenly in the middle of a discussion, a beautiful Asian model would walk in and Marlon would disappear for half an hour. I would just sit there and read a book.”

Mr. Gesner used sustainable materials long before it was fashionable. The Sandcastle, which he built for himself and his fourth wife, the actress Nan Martin, on the secluded Malibu cove right next to the Wave House, was made from lumber salvaged from a high school that had burned down, and marble from public baths that were about to be demolished. He used old telephone poles to support its tower — Ms. Germany, the author of “Houses of the Sundown Sea,” described the place as resembling “a Dutch windmill, a Spanish lighthouse, a Hobbit’s dwelling.” Mr. Gesner called it a home for “two creative and very much in love adults, a baby boy and a Labrador retriever.”

In addition to his stepson, Mr. Gesner is survived by his daughter, Tara Tanzer-Cartwright; two sons, Jason and Zen; and five grandchildren. His marriages to Audrey Hawthorne, Patti Townsend and Patricia Alexander ended in divorce. Ms. Martin died in 2010.

In the 1990s, Mr. Gesner converted his beloved 1959 silver Mercedes 190 SL convertible into an electric vehicle. He had three patents for a system to turn solid waste into fuel, and in his later years he worked on designs for poured concrete and wood structures that were engineered for extreme weather. “Houses that survive,” he called them.

“They will withstand the worst elements,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “Hurricanes, of course. Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Termites and sun spots. Outside of withstanding a volcanic river of molten rock, I think we can solve all of our problems by good design, sensible, practical design that takes into effect all the elements.”