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Inside Shangri La

In 1935, when Doris Duke was 23, she was twice struck by a kind of mental lightning. Her two revelations—glimpses of paradise, really—took place on opposite sides of the globe. The first came in Agra, India, at that transcendent marble outburst of Islamic house-craft known as the Taj Mahal. The second came in Hawai‘i, under the monument-like backdrop of Diamond Head. She spent the rest of her life, to the age of 80, melding these two kinds of perfection—the hand-crafted beauty of Islamic design and the natural beauty of the O‘ahu shoreline—into a single architectural work that she called “Shangri La.”

Now, 16 years after Duke’s death, her self-made refuge Shangri La is open to public tours. It houses the fifth largest collection of Islamic art in the U.S. For that reason alone, the Doris Duke Museum is a sensation, each room an intricate orchestration of floral and geometric patterns echoing each other in grilles, tiles, textiles, pierced metal lamps and colored glass, each room glowing in the pure light of polished marble or resting in the shadowy warmth of wooden mosaic ceilings or winking with the sounds of splashing water. Every cranny in the place seems to be muttering a thought from the mind of Allah.

But the museum is more than its parts. It’s impossible to visit the place without also getting saturated with the spirit of its designer, the departed Ms. Duke. Her sensibility—her dream of a double paradise—is woven into the house as intricately as the arabesque lines in any one of its numerous tile murals.

Duke’s fate was to be handed the responsibility, and the notoriety, of great wealth. Her father had founded the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company, and he belonged to the East Coast aristocracy of the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Industrial Age. When he died, Doris—his primary beneficiary—was just 12. The national press labeled her, rather unsympathetically, “the richest girl in the world.”

She married in 1935 and set out on an ocean liner for a 10-month honeymoon tour of the world. The marriage didn’t last much longer than the honeymoon, but the tour changed her life forever. After seeing the Taj Mahal, she immediately commissioned a marble bedroom and bathroom suite, which included carved marble doorways, numerous jalis (lattice screens) and floral patterns of inlaid precious stones. She intended to install it in her husband’s Florida home. But on the way back, the couple stopped in Honolulu. They’d planned to stay for a couple of days; in fact, they stayed four months. Entranced, Duke returned soon after, bought 4.9 acres of coastline at Ka‘alawai (Black Point, just south of Diamond Head) and hired some architects. The actual construction of Shangri La took two years and cost $1.4 million; a sum that was unprecedented for the time.

The first architectural renderings sketched a mammoth fortress that turned its back to the sea. Duke had the edifice scaled down and turned open to nature. (Clearly, it was not the monumental brawn of the Taj Mahal that she admired, it was the delicacy of its interior spaces.) She made great use of pocket doors—combinations of solid glass and carved grilles that could be eased aside to eliminate the separation from nature. The most sensational of these is the all-glass west wall of the living room, facing Diamond Head. Push a button and the entire wall lowers itself into the basement, allowing guests to stroll directly out onto a seaside lawn, past the private harbor, down to the 75 foot-long saltwater swimming pool (where Errol Flynn once drank mai tais while watching Duke Kahanamoku jackknife off the diving board), and on to The Playhouse, which is modeled after a 17th-century royal pavilion in Isfahan, Iran ….

Ah, well. It’s easy to get carried away at Shangri La. The point is that the entire house can be tuned like an instrument to the shifting moods of the Hawaiian weather. In a thousand ways, Duke captured correlations between the art and the land she loved. The turquoise of an urn echoes a glimpse of the sky. A tree depicted in a tile mural mimics the trunk of a golden shower tree that dominates the central courtyard. The entire sprawling 15,000- square-foot composition proves Duke’s unique theme—that Islamic culture harmonizes well with the spirit of the Islands.

Nothing about the house is accidental or unconsidered. As early as 1937, during initial construction, one of the landscape designers, Robert Oliver Thompson, remarked that Duke “was constantly on the job and took great interest in every tree, every leaf, twig, shrub. She certainly did. I have never seen a girl take the interest that she did and she knew what she wanted.”

She willingly went to extreme parts of the world to get what she wanted. Her acquisition travels took her to India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria, Istanbul, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. In nearly 60 years of searching, she purchased about 3,500 objects for Shangri La. She collected an amazing range of media—wood, paper, precious stone, glass, ceramic, metal and fiber. No stickler for antiquities, she freely commissioned new works, bought “off the rack” and had artisans reproduce pieces when more were needed. And she never stopped. In the early 1980s, at age 70, she undertook a major renovation that resulted in what’s called “The Turkish Room,” a glittering environment dominated by carved and painted wood panels, a mosaic marble floor with a bold geometry of cream and brown hues, and a four-spouted marble fountain. For this, Duke purchased the complete interior of a 19th-century Damascus room. She and her staff then set up a production line to restore every detail of the room. They also designed and cut new marble panels to complement the historic fragments she’d bought. You can’t call Duke a collector so much as an interacter.

This point distinguishes Doris Duke from others who converted American industrial wealth into art acquisitions—J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and so on. They sought out Old Master paintings as investments and later gave their collections, with considerable fanfare, to prestigious museums. Duke had a very different relationship with art. She did not collect masterpieces. Instead, she pursued her vision in a relatively obscure field of world art. Rather than acquire what the world valued, she personalized a home. She made a statement, then left that statement for our consideration. Perhaps Shangri La is more a message than it is a museum.

The primary impression one gets at Shangri La is not luxury so much as empathy. This empathy is consistent with Duke’s history of countless charitable gifts—countless because many were made anonymously. Her generosity gave us the Doris Duke Theater at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which screens films from places as far-flung as Thailand and Iran. She left us her home. She left us a foundation to maintain that home and to use it for public betterment. To that end, the Shangri La staff is preparing to open the house for gatherings dedicated to Duke’s favorite causes, which include the arts, environmental protection, child abuse prevention, AIDS prevention and of course, a greater understanding of Islamic culture.

Doris Duke was prophetic, especially on that last point. In 1935 few people would have guessed what we now see—the violent collision of Western and Muslim cultures, a collision that challenges us to expand our awareness. It seems that the world has grown to need her museum.