"Doris Duke's Shangri La: A House in Paradise" brings us exquisite photographs, scholarly essays, and a lingering lovely visit to the Arabian fantasy Miss Duke (as she preferred to be called) somewhat improbably created on the Island of Oahu. Coupled with the small paperback guide to Shangri La and a good biography, this large format book would be an imaginative gift for someone visiting the Hawaiian Islands or, at an amazingly low price for a fine art book, for yourself.
Shangri La began on Miss Duke's honeymoon with James Crowell (whom she later divorced, apparently to their mutual relief), and her time in India, that complex land whose treasure include the enchanting Mughal architecture of the Moti Mahal and the Taj Mahal. Originally intended as a gift for her then-mother-in-law, by the happiest of circumstances, the plan for Shangri La changed. The honeymooners stopped in Hawaii long enough for them to fall in love with a site on the other side of Diamond Head, then undeveloped.
For the rest of her quite long life, Miss Duke built, re-built, designed, re-designed, acquired, installed, uninstalled, and re-installed the house, its interiors, and its gardens. She cheerfully mixed countries and centuries, so a unique 13th century Mihrab (facing the way she wanted and to heck with its function as orientation to prayer) was installed in a room including 16th century Spanish armaments, 18th/19th century Middle Eastern pottery and a 21st century glass wall that sank into a basement to open the main house to the Jonny Weismuller-size swimming pool and guest house. The main house itself is small, relative to her other mansion-size homes, an intimate personal retreat for a woman who sought privacy and the informal friendships with a few people of Hawaii.
Shangri La itself, the photographs, and essays all make for a marvelous tour, a rush of textures, colors, patterns, materials, artifacts that are held in the framework of a low simple even severe white building and a garden of even simpler green foliage on either side of a narrow water channel with fountains. If you come to Oahu, sign up well in advance for the tour and enjoy.
Reading this Doris Duke's Shangri La: A House in Paradise before your tour is likely to add enormously to your understanding and pleasure. Reading it after may deepen your understanding and pleasure too, with the thoughtful and scholarly essays. And if you can not come, well, this is a treat in itself that is actually broader than the tour in including rooms not open to the public, close-up works of art you can peruse at leisure, and much enriched by essays and photographs showing other works of the architects and decorators in their time. The photographs of Miss Duke have mostly been published elsewhere; the photographs of the house, interior, artifacts, and gardens are new.
The text combines deep appreciation of the benefactress who set up a trust to ensure that Shangri La would be preserved and studied anew. The tone, however, in this and the other briefer pamphlet can sound a bit strangled. The house and gardens can give curators fits, because Miss Duke collected what caught her eye, commissioned reproductions of what was not for sale, and mixed her extensive and continuing acquisitions any way she pleased. She had a good eye, unlimited money, a passion for Islamic art, but a systematic scholarly collector she was not.
You may like the result of such robust unconventional eclectism or you may not. This fine book (which does not cover her life story or all aspects of Shangri La under all conditions or through all its transformations) will give you the opportunity for a leisurely visit, up close and semi-personal, to find out where you are on the intrigued to irritated spectrum.
Overall, this book is a must for those who already are fascinated with this unique house in paradise (and living here, I visit it when I go to Oahu from Hawaii Island) and a delight for the adventurous arm-chair traveler.