A Gem in Hawaii
Shangri La reflects Islamic architectural traditions from India and the Middle East.
Shangri La, the historic home of Doris Duke, encompasses the tropical beauty of the Hawaiian islands with the architectural designs of the Islamic world. Located in Honolulu, this center for Islamic arts and culture integrates a 14,000-square-foot house, a pool, a playhouse, courtyards, terraces, gardens, and numerous water features.
Duke, once referred to as the richest girl in the world, was an American philanthropist and art collector. She was the daughter of James Buchanan Duke, a tobacco and electric power magnate, and granddaughter of Washington Duke, after whom Duke University in North Carolina is named.
She grew up in New York City and, at a very early age, inherited a large sum of money, which provided her with the means to travel around the world, engage in a variety of philanthropic endeavors and pursue her passion for art collection. In February 1935, Duke married U.S. diplomat James H. R. Cromwell and went on an extended honeymoon around the world. The couple’s travels through the Middle East and South Asia had a profound influence on Duke as she fell in love with Islamic art. The newlyweds spent the last part of their honeymoon in Hawaii, where they stayed for four months.
Shangri La was built from 1936 to 1938 and it became Duke’s Hawaiian home, which she filled with works of Islamic art she collected and commissioned from India, Morocco, Syria and Iran.
“Doris Duke’s trip through India in 1935 was transformative and, in a lot of ways, it represents the beginning of her lifelong relationship with Islamic art,” says Dawn Sueoka, archivist at the Honolulu Museum of Art. She worked as an archivist at Shangri La and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art from 2009 to September 2016. “There is a lovely black-and-white photograph of her framed by the cusped arches of the Moti Masjid [in Agra] that encapsulates this moment really well. Soon after that photo was taken, Duke commissioned the Mughal bedroom and bathroom suite. She returned to India many times throughout her life, and her travels there had a significant and lasting impact on the house and the collection.”
Duke spent 60 years building the collection of Islamic art displayed at Shangri La, which opened to the public in 2002. It is managed by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which was created in 1998 in accordance with Duke’s will to promote the study of Islamic arts and culture. The Honolulu Museum of Art serves as the orientation center and starting point for Shangri La tours, which are offered regularly from Wednesday to Saturday. By offering guided tours for visitors, residences for scholars and artists, and lectures and performances, the museum strives to improve the understanding of the Islamic world through art.
Visitors to Shangri La can take guided tours of Duke’s Hawaiian home, stroll through the beautifully decorated living room, dining room, the Mughal Suite, the Damascus Room and the Playhouse, all while breathing the tropical air of the Pacific Ocean.
Sueoka recommends a stop at the Damascus Room in particular. “The walls and ceilings are covered with really lustrous and intricate 18th-century wooden paneling that’s decorated in a raised-relief technique called ajami. The technique incorporates metal leaf, so the effect in the darkened room is that the panels appear to shimmer. The paneling would originally have been used in a reception room in a Damascene courtyard house, a place where people would entertain guests. So the room is set up to evoke this experience, with divans against the walls and prized possessions on display in the vitrines.”
Another gem is the Mughal Suite. Opened to the public in 2014, it was inspired by the architecture of the Taj Mahal and the Mughal dynasty. “To me, this space really shows how harmoniously Shangri La’s Islamic-inspired architecture is incorporated into the Hawaiian landscape,” says Sueoka. “For instance, the south-facing pierced-marble jalis, which are at the same time very massive and very delicate, let in the trade winds and the sounds of the ocean. When you’re inside the room, you feel like you’re in Agra, and when you look out through the screens, you can see the Pacific Ocean.”
The word, Shangri La, evokes a mythical place, a sort of man-made Eden. As Sueoka notes, “I think, perhaps paradoxically, that sense of idyllic beauty is preserved through constant change and transformation. Doris Duke transformed many spaces at Shangri La during her lifetime and we try to maintain that spirit of reinvention. But even subtler changes and shifts—for example, several families of terns nesting in the fig tree beside the Mughal Garden—can energize the space and keep it evergreen.”
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.