Visitors to Shangri La descend a long driveway shielded by dense foliage and first encounter the main house from within an open-air space known variously as the entry or banyan courtyard (the latter in homage to a large banyan tree that shades the paved space). The south (oceanside) and west (Diamond Head) sides of the courtyard are punctuated by two large whitewashed façades, each with a similar front door. The low-lying façade on the south leads into the foyer of the main house, while the taller example on the west leads into the Mughal Garden, which stretches from east to west along an upper terrace. The rest of the 4.9-acre property is steadily terraced downward, and the visitors’ experience is marked by increased proximity to the ocean.
The simplicity of the main house’s façade may be surprising. There are, however, signs that one is about to enter a property that is partially inspired by Islamic architecture and that preserves a large collection of Islamic art. Like façades found in the maze-like old cities (medinas) of the Arab world, Shangri La’s façade is plain, unassuming and betrays little of what lies within, thus ensuring privacy and protection from the bustling world beyond. For Doris Duke (1912–93), this was a top priority.
Although the entry courtyard preserves just a few examples of Islamic art, they are nonetheless significant. The rooftop of the main façade is sheathed in green roof tiles custom-made for Shangri La in Rabat, Morocco, in 1937. The result is a combination of a whitewashed façade and green tiles that echoes architecture throughout Morocco, which Duke visited with her husband James Cromwell in 1937. The front door (64.1b), made in Egypt in c. 1900 and acquired in 1938, presents the visitor’s first close inspection of Islamic art. Its geometric patterns, scrolling arabesques, and calligraphy exemplify the type of art preserved in the house. The calligraphy is in fact drawn from different verses in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. The central inscription—located in a small roundel—features the opening phrase of the Qur’an and all but one of its ensuing chapters (surahs): “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful” (bismillah al-rahman al-rahim). The calligraphy above further welcomes one into Paradise (Qur’an 15:46).
The door leading to the Mughal Garden (64.96a-d) is similar to the one leading into the main house and includes, among other verses, the same welcoming phrase, “Enter them in health, secure” (Qur’an 15:46). During Duke’s lifetime, the whitewashed surface above was embellished with a nineteenth-century Qajar Iranian tile spandrel, which has since been deinstalled for conservation purposes.