The Taj Mahal has inspired countless flights of fancy over the last 3 1/2 centuries, but most of them pale when compared to how the Indian palace fired Doris Duke’s imagination. The billionaire heiress first visited the Taj Mahal in 1935 while on her 10-month honeymoon trip, and she decided she’d like to build something like it. She spent the next six decades until her death in 1993 doing just that.
You can see the fruits of her labor in “Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape and Islamic Art,” an exhibition on display at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art through Dec. 29.
Shangri La, Duke’s oceanfront estate in Hawaii. was her personal Taj Mahal. One of four residences she maintained throughout the U.S. (and now a museum), it’s a fascinatingly lavish showcase that combines modernist architecture with Muslim art against a stunning tropical backdrop.
Money was no object for Duke, daughter of Duke University founder James Buchanan Duke, who assembled one of the country’s largest private collections of Islamic art and furnished Shangri La with it. But her motives for doing so remain something of a mystery.
“Doris Duke was not much of a letter-writer and didn’t keep a diary or anything like that,” said Katie Atkins, assistant curator at the Nasher. “So we don’t really know why she was such an avid collector, other than that she became very interested in Islamic art on her honeymoon. She was a very private woman, and it’s not clear what, if anything, she thought about the Muslim faith. But it’s not always necessary to get caught up in why, which I think people get stuck on. These are beautiful works, even if they’re not your typical oil paintings on canvas that people might collect.”
Indeed, while Shangri La has plenty of paintings, sculptures and other decorative artifacts, the complex’s architecture is as much a work of art as the objects it holds. It includes several complete rooms transported to Hawaii and integrated into the structure, intricate stonework and all.
The “Doris Duke’s Shangri La” exhibit includes numerous photos, dresses and jewelry owned by Duke and architectural sketches that trace the estate’s evolution from design to fully realized masterpiece. The picture of Duke that emerges is of someone who wanted to live not just with her art, but within it.
Much of Duke’s archive consists of pieces she commissioned as well as collected, and she continued tinkering with the compound’s visual elements for more than half a century. Some of the show’s more eye-opening works include the poolside playhouse, where visiting artists-in-residence stay nowadays; the Mughal Suite dressing room, in which even the simplest household artifacts were constructed with dazzling artistic precision; the tent-like dining room; and many of the ornate tile patterns throughout.
“Shangri La was a continually evolving being,” Atkins said. “All these works, when you look at the level of craft and detail that were put in, it’s amazing to think about the people who made them.”