Tuesday, 11 June 2013


The life story of Mr Harry Gesner, whose 88 years have packed in three times the action of most ordinary high achievers, is so fabled that if it were not true, you'd suspect it had been fabricated by the author of a classic Boy's Own yarn. Mr Gesner is primarily an architect, whose work over six decades has defined many of Southern California's most sought-after bluffs, coves and hillsides... But that only scratches the surface. 

MR PORTER has been invited to meet Mr Gesner at his home, Sandcastle, a remarkable circular construction of stucco, salvaged brick and repurposed wood set flush to the beach at the western end of Malibu, California. The building next door is also a Gesner structure: The Wave House (completed in 1956), much admired by Mr Jørn Utzon (who channelled some of that admiration into his design for the Sydney Opera House) and formerly owned by rock'n'roll legend Mr Rod Stewart. 

"I thought that the best education I could possibly get would be to see the world. ''

MR PORTER was joined by model and actor Mr Zen Gesner, 42, the youngest of Harry's offspring, whose credits include a fistful of Farrelly brothers comedies and the TV series The Adventures of Sinbad, in which he played the title character. On looks alone, both father and son qualify as archetypal Southern Californian supermen: they are lords of the longboard, buffed to a state of golden wellbeing by the ocean and the sun.

 If Game of Thrones happened to be set in modern Malibu, the House of Gesner would be a dominant dynasty, fortified by its youngest generation, which includes Mr Zen Gesner's three sons, Finn (15), Rory (12) and Tuck (9). It has become a family tradition that fathers instil in their offspring a love of creativity, a close bond with the natural world and an appreciation for ancient weaponry. "My dad is the ultimate renaissance man," says Mr Zen Gesner. "He trained me how to use a sword, and a bow and arrow, and he taught me how to dance. I'm an actor, and I love that walk of life, but I have a great appreciation for what my father does as well. Dad was always a constant source of inspiration." 


The roots of that inspiration are, it turns out, deeply ancestral. Sixteenth-century Swiss naturalist Mr Conrad Gesner - the father of modern zoology - pioneered mountaineering, bibliography and the use of the pencil. Further along that line, the Gesner spirit of invention shaped the electrical generator, the repeating Winchester rifle and the automotive supercharger. Harry's uncle, Mr Jack Northrop, invented the flying wing, which in turn led to the B-2 Spirit "Stealth Bomber". 

On Mr Gesner's maternal side, the bloodline runs back to Spanish commandant Mr José de la Guerra, who owned a vast expanse of land in California ("all the distance he could ride in one day, from sunrise to sunset"), and more recently to Mr Alexander Harmer, the "Artist of the Apaches", whose subjects included Geronimo. From both sides of the family, Mr Gesner appears to have distilled just the right amounts of technical and artistic talent, but when asked to pin down the true source of his success as an architect, the answer is simple: observation of the world around him. 

"I'm nurtured by nature," he says, with a smile. "I would wonder where these ideas came from and then I would sit out there on a surfboard and I would dream up all kinds of interesting things. I designed The Wave House sitting on a surfboard." He points towards the Pacific. "Out there beyond the rocks, with a grease pencil, drawing it on the board. The boards were bigger in those days. I have a great feeling for nature: the way a tree grows, the way rock formations erupt from the earth, the way a wave hits the beach, the way birds fly." 

The remarkable thing about Mr Gesner is that he is, for the most part, self-taught - and here's where the uncommonly interesting parts of his life start to unfold. After WWII, during which he came within a whisker of losing both legs (he chose a therapeutic regime of olive oil massages over amputation), he was offered the chance to study under the great Mr Frank Lloyd Wright, for most architecture students the golden ticket to a solid career. "I admired his work, at Yale University, but I decided after two sessions with him that he was the last person on earth I wanted to study under. I would have just been another little Frank Lloyd Wright." 

Instead, Mr Gesner decided to search for buried treasure in Ecuador. "I thought that the best education I could possibly get would be to see the world. So that's what I did - I travelled to South America on archaeological expeditions, a place called Manabi, south of Esmeraldas. The artwork that I found in the burial mounds was very much like that which they found on Easter Island: very unique." 

"Dad was always thinking ahead." 

On his return to the US, he gave himself 10 years to establish his reputation as an architect, and succeeded in half that time. "I worked as a carpenter, a brick mason, a plumber: everything I could get my hands on," he says of his self-guided apprenticeship. Mr Gesner quickly carved out his own niche, working apart from the roll call of usual suspects in the California modern architecture movement - he belonged to no "school" and, for the bulk of his early career, was unlicensed. "I was doing it the hard way. And probably it was not acceptable at the time." 

The hard way clearly suited Mr Gesner, who describes himself as a "revolutionist or a maverick" and shows no sign of losing his appetite for invention. In his garage is a silver 1957 Mercedes-Benz 190SL that he converted to run on electricity, while he's currently working on two further projects intended to tackle pressing environmental problems including overpopulation, overconsumption and natural disasters. The first of them is architectural ("It's going to change the way we live," he says, keeping specific details close to his chest) and the second is an automotive engineering challenge. "It's a whole different kind of motor. We cannot do it with fossil fuels any more," he says, before breaking into a broad smile. "It's very, very exciting." 

As Mr Gesner heads towards the beach for his daily dose of nature-infused inspiration, his son reflects on the influence - and the sheer dudeness - of his father. "My father and I have a profound connection. His houses, artwork and inventions inspire me. He's constantly exploring new ways to improve our world and the way we live, and I think it's had an impact on how my sons view the world."

 He squints toward the horizon: "Dad was always thinking ahead." 

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