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Architect Harry Gesner on the deck of the wave house in Malibu in 2005
Architect Harry Gesner on the deck of the ‘wave house’ – now for sale – in Malibu, California, in 2005. His son Zen Gesner says his father and Sydney Opera House architect Jørn Utzon knew each other. Photograph: Steven Lippman

Did this $72m ‘wave house’ inspire Sydney Opera House? Harry Gesner’s California creation up for sale

Architect Harry Gesner on the deck of the ‘wave house’ – now for sale – in Malibu, California, in 2005. His son Zen Gesner says his father and Sydney Opera House architect Jørn Utzon knew each other. Photograph: Steven Lippman

Whether the self-taught architect’s Malibu masterpiece influenced Jørn Utzon’s iconic Australian design remains the subject of debate

A beach house that could have played a role in Jørn Utzon’s design of the Sydney Opera House is up for sale – with a price tag of US$49.5m ($72m).

Malibu’s “wave house”, designed by Californian self-taught architect Harry Gesner, has been home to pop star Rod Stewart and Warner Bros record executive Mo Ostin, who fostered the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac and Madonna among others. It is generally considered the architect’s masterpiece.

Gesner has said he used a grease pencil to sketch ideas for the wave house on his surfboard while surveying the site from the ocean, with the idea that the house would thrust out into the surf at high tide and nestle back in the sand at low tide.

The resulting three crested-roof formation houses the public living areas of the six-bedroom, eight-bathroom home, with vast panes of glass capturing the Malibu vista, appreciated best from a must-have of luxury contemporary interior design of the time: a carpeted, sunken conversation pit.

The crested roof may be similar to that of the Sydney Opera House, but Gesner’s influence on Utzon remains the subject of debate. The Danish architect, who died last year, won the competition to design the opera house in 1957, around the same time Gesner was designing the wave house for his surfer friends Gerry and Glenn Cooper. The house was not completed until 1963; the Sydney Opera House would take another 10 years.

Harry Gesner’s ‘wave house’ on the Malibu coastline in California
Harry Gesner’s ‘wave house’ in Malibu, California. Photograph: Simon Berlyn

According to Zen Gesner, who is a co-lister of the wave house, his father and Utzon certainly knew of each other.

“My father really had a lot of admiration for Jørn Utzon,” he told Guardian Australia from California on Tuesday.

“When he was designing the wave house … it was covered in a lot of European magazines. Stories about it reached as far as Russia.”

A room in the wave house
Inside the home. Photograph: Brian Love/Simon Berlyn

Gesner said he recalled his father referring to a phone call he received from Utzon “out of the blue” one day.

“He complimented my father on his design of the wave house, he’d seen photos of it. He mentioned to my father that he was working on a very unconventional design for the Sydney Opera House, and that, in a lot of ways, my father’s wave house design inspired him.

“My father was blown away by this because all architects are pretty much egomaniacs, they very rarely ever tip their hats to other people for inspiration. And this really shocked my dad, he was so humbled by this call…

“My father told me that that was really a turning point in his career,” Gesner said. “He felt like that kicked him up to the next level, to be recognised by someone like that.”

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An aerial view of the wave house.
The wave house from above. Photograph: Simon Berlyn

In the book Gesner senior co-wrote in 2012, Houses of the Sundown Sea, he doesn’t claim to have inspired the opera house. He describes the phone call as “brief and straightforward”.

“[He said he] was very taken with the design and admired how it was so compatible to the site, that’s all,” Harry Gesner wrote. “I was more amazed by the fact that he was an architect going to the trouble to call very long distance and compliment another architect. That just never happens! I was impressed by his candour but soon forgot about it.”

Later in the book, he comments on being the source of inspiration for the Sydney Opera House: “I wish people would not insist that something looks like something else, but they do. It’s human nature and a bore. An inspirational concept comes from a collection of parts and pieces … and that wonderful sauce, ‘imagination’.”

Building staff inspect tiles on the Sydney Opera House
Building staff inspect tiles on the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

A popular myth has it that, while designing the Sydney Opera House, Utzon had a eureka moment peeling an orange. But according to the opera house, it was another architect, Finnish American Eero Saarinen, who some years earlier cut into a grapefruit to explain how the reinforced concrete shell structure for his TWA Building design at John F Kennedy airport in New York City could work. Saarinen later used an orange to explain the shape of the shells to others, an opera house spokesperson said.

Harry Gesner’s son Zen has yet to see the Sydney Opera House, despite being in Australia earlier this year. When the realtor is not not selling luxury homes through his company Compass, he works as an actor most known for his roles in The Adventures of Sinbadand All My Children. He spent two weeks in Australia filming the Zac Efron and John Cena movie Ricky Stanicky, but never left Melbourne.

On Tuesday the Sydney Opera House announced its month-long 50th birthday festival program, which will feature a giant catwalk erected on the forecourt, based on an idea the British conceptual artist Jeremy Deller created for the 2017 Manchester international festival.

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