The longstanding myth of the Tibetan paradise of Shambala was re-introduced to contemporary culture in the form of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon – a Himalayan paradise in a valley cut off from the rest of the world where the wisdom of the human race is being conserved against the imminent threat of catastrophe. The story was set in this troubled and sometimes disillusioned time between World Wars, and reflected a sense of longing for hope the renewal of man’s greater ideals.
“… the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary save such as are too secret to be found or to humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these.” James Hilton from Lost Horizon
His vision set the ideal of this hidden place – Shangri-La, where the wisdom and beauty of civilization could be preserved and it could stand as a faint, distant, yet true beacon to the outside world. The story became widely popular during this troubled time, and the novel was successfully adapted to the wide screen in a hit 1937 film of the same name . Shangri-La came to define a lost paradise in the western lexicon.
In the idyllic setting Hawaiian Islands, while visiting family on Oahu, I discovered an architectural delight on the island and learned of the story about the creation of another version of Shangri-La by a visionary who had found her own escape and built her own place of enlightenment.
During this same period of Hilton’s novel between the World Wars, the American heiress Doris Duke, daughter of JB Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Company and Duke Energy Company, grew from a young girl to a woman who at twenty-one would inherit her share of the Duke estate. Even this early on, she was determined to make her own way, not to be defined by her family’s name and wealth, nor to be confined within the trappings of the social expectations. Her philanthropic interests would find their way to formation, through Independent Aid, which she founded in 1934, and would later grow into the Doris Duke Foundation.
The next year she married, and her honeymoon trip took her around the world. While in India, her husband, Robert Cromwell would write that Doris “has fallen in love with the Taj Mahal and all the beautiful marble tile, with their lovely floral designs with some precious stones.” This exposure would mark her beginnings as a collector of what she found beautiful, but these travels would have a much more profound effect – as she was immersed into new cultures and places that were very different from her own upbringing and she found herself deeply attracted to these places and people. The last stop on their journey was in Hawaii, where she quickly felt at home and developed a lasting friendship with the Kahanamoku family and learning the ways of Hawaiian culture. The bond with this place was so strong she would soon create her own Shangri-La within this hidden tropical landscape.
Along the south shore of O’ahu, the 4.9 acre estate sat perched above the shoreline with dramatic views of Diamond Head. This would become the place where she blended a growing love of Islamic art and architecture with the culture of the Islands. Her next few years would be spent exploring and collecting artifacts and commissioning new work from living artisans in travels throughout Morocco, Iran, Syria, as well as India, that would become the defining architectural elements and ornamentation of her home in Hawaii – Shangri-La. To bring her vision to life, she would work with Palm Beach architect Marion Sims Wyeth and local supervising architect H. Drewry Baker.
“Shangri-La … isn’t the product of any one person, but of a number of architects and decorators from all over the world, finally put together by me.” -Doris Duke
Her extended team of architects and craftsmen were built from her relationships formed during her many travels. On her honeymoon, she had worked with Francis and Charles Bloomfield and the Indian Marble Works to design a Mughal inspired marble bedroom suite that became a centerpiece of the Hawaiian home with its intricate marble panels with inlaid stone work and the decorative “jalis” – perforated marble screens. Bloomfield had been a part of the architectural team that designed Lutyen’s Delhi.
“Precisely at the time I fell in love with Hawai‘i and I decided I could never live anywhere else, a Mughal-inspired bedroom and bathroom planned for another house was being completed for me in India so there was nothing to do but have it shipped to Hawai‘i and build a house around it,” – Doris Duke
Duke’s bathroom—a sanctuary of carved and inlaid marble panels made by craftsmen of the Indian Marble Works in Agra. Embedded in marble are pieces of lapis lazuli, jade, carnelian and other semi-precious stones forming 26 floral studies.
In Morocco, she discovered the firm S.A.L.A.M. Rene Martin in Rabat, who produced the designs for the living room, where the elaborately carved and painted ceiling, plaster friezes, and mashrabiyya (carved and turned wood screens in geometric patterns) for her husband’s room.
In Iran, accompanied by Mary Crane, an art advisor, guide, and field assistant on architectural surveys for the American Institute for Persian Art and Archeology, she discovered master tile makers in Isfahan who would create the fine mosaics for the home. In particular, these elements came to life in the walls of the central courtyard and most exuberantly in the Playhouse – a pool side pavilion inspired by the Chehel Sotoun palace in Isfahan, Iran, with its slender, decoratively painted columns and tile mosaic panels reflecting in her pool creating the illusion of a grander space. The scale, patterns and brilliant colors would become defining elements of Duke’s aesthetic for Shangri-La.
The scale, patterns and brilliant colors became defining elements of Duke’s aesthetic for Shangri-La. Details draw their inspirations from a wide range of sources – The Dining room being an interesting example. Its vibrant blue tented interior is accented by an Ottoman-style fireplace and walls adorned with medieval Persian mosaic panels, while the exterior lanai column details draw from pre-Islamic early Persian interpretations of the architrave and double ionic column capitals from Persepolis.
The real power of Shangri-La is not just the collection, but how it was integrated into a livable modern home, allowing her to live with the blended contexts of the places and cultures she so loved. The sense of experiential procession created by the house is not just expressed in unique relationships between interior spaces, but is also played out in the interplay of natural light showcasing the vibrant colors and patterns, the mosaic, and in the seamless connections to courtyards, gardens, and vistas to the ocean and sky.
As per her wishes, the home has now come full circle as a place where beauty and wisdom are preserved, as it has become a steward for understanding of the art and craftsmanship she held so dear. The center for Islamic arts and cultures offers tours, residencies for scholars and artists, and programs to create a better understanding of the Islamic arts and crafts in the formation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
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