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Guest of Honor - Harry Gesner

Modernism’s Maverick: A Conversation with Harry Gesner


In addition to leading an almost impossibly romantic life - incorporating spells as a treasure-hunting archaeologist in South America and teaching water-skiing aboard Errol Flynn’s boat - our conference Guest of Honor Harry Gesner (1925) has built some of Modernism’s most unorthodox houses, capturing the soul of California in architecture. These include his Scantlin House at the Getty Center, which Getty architect Richard Meier insisted on preserving. On our tours, we visit the Sandcastle in Malibu, the remarkable circular home where Gesner has lived since 1970. The legendary architect takes the conference stage, too, for a special question and answer session about his work.

Where did your interest in building houses originate?
It began when I was a kid, delivering papers in LA. In those days, a lot of new houses were being built on my round, including many interesting ones. I’d walk in and have a look them. I always wanted to be an architect; I just had an intuition that it would be a fun thing to do. This was even though my uncle - an architect, unlicensed although he was very good - told me I didn’t have enough talent. Of course, telling me that just made me want to do it even more. I was always drawing houses, even then. That’s really why I never wanted to study architecture; I’d always felt one jump ahead.

So how did you get into the profession?
After the war, I worked as a television cartoonist in New York, but I’d take the train to Yale to listen in on the lectures of Frank Lloyd Wright. Somehow or other, he ended up inviting me to join him at Taliesin West, but that wasn’t for me. If I’d done it, I’d just have ended up being a paler version of Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead, I decided to give myself ten years to teach myself to be an architect. I’d pick a construction site that looked interesting and I’d ask to work there as an apprentice. I was a carpenter, stonemason, or anything else I could get into. I only picked exceptional houses. That’s how I learned. As an architect, I believe you should always be able to construct the buildings you design. I always work on my own houses.

To say you’ve led an interesting life would be a huge understatement. What is the link between your many adventures and your work?
While I was fighting in World War II, I always said to myself, and to anyone who might be listening, ‘If I survive this, I’m going to do something important with my life’.
On my travels, I learned to appreciate fine architecture. When I was in Europe during World War II, whenever I could I’d explore a castle. Castles are hands-on architecture. The masons designed, and built them, from the intricate knowledge that they had in their heads. You don’t find plans for medieval castles. Seeing them made me think more about the fine points of designing a habitat, and what stuck in my head was that these were autonomous structures. I try to design autonomous houses that function.

Do you have a favorite house among the many you have built?
It’s the one I am working on. Even though I’ve designed over 100 houses over the years, my favorite is always the current one. I just started one this week - a series of domes and a keep for an engineer and a writer and their kids. It’s on a 10-acre site, between the mountains and the ocean.

How do you go about designing a house?
The way I design is to go to the site and sit there for hours at a time. I return to it again and again at different times. It’s a very individual approach, and each of my house solutions only applies to that particular site. I don’t have any formulas. I design to nature, taking account of the sun and wind. Nature is my teacher, rather than other architecture. I don’t study other people’s work.

Apart from the new house, what else are you currently working on?
There’s the Autonomous Tent, which doesn’t depend on formal foundations and can be put up in a few days. It doesn’t even require you to level the land, so it doesn’t destroy its natural contours. Although it’s informal architecture, it will easily last 100 years. Another autonomous housing project is the Mushroom House, a tripod house above the ground - I think we have to get back into the trees! Then Kelly Slater, the great surfer, has this project called The Perfect Wave - an engineered artificial wave that will be a quarter of a mile long, which he has been developing for 12 years. He has contacted me to masterplan the project.

You are known for your houses on ‘unbuildable’ sites, like the Cahuenga Pass Boathouses. Is there any site that can’t be used?
No. I can solve every problem. I love a challenge. Most of my houses are on difficult sites - I have no problems with problems!

Do you still surf?
I did until quite recently, but I’ve stopped now. I’m 90 and it’s ok to let go of certain things.

How about your legacy? What will happen to your archive, for example?
My archive is in the very safe hands of Lisa Stoddard, who is doing a great job looking after it and will continue to do so. It’s currently in my garage, and I would love it to go the Getty Center. As for my home, the Sandcastle, it will be 50 years old in four years from now and wlll therefore be eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

What is the biggest challenge that architects face today?
I think it’s to get away from the grid and design self-sufficient homes - right down to the collection of water. We need to find ways to stop polluting. If we don’t get away from fossil fuels, we will cancel ourselves out with pollution. My biggest interest, all through my life, has been the environment. We are so fortunate to live on this beautiful planet. We must take action to stop ruining it and live in balance with nature. We need to reassess our place in this world - and architecture is a small part of doing that.

Watch the film ‘Harry Gesner: Architect, Environmentalist, Visionary’ by Eric Minh Swenson



Images photo gallery: from the book 'Houses of the Sundown Sea: The Architectural Vision of Harry Gesner'

Publication date 4 February 2016