Shangri La, Islam, and the Ocean: An Interconnected World

The Playhouse at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
The Playhouse at Shangri La. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

As I sit, with coffee in hand, enjoying the spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean from Shangri La, I recognize that Doris Duke’s choice of venue for a house filled with Islamic art was singularly appropriate.  After all, Arabs and Persians were the great seafarers of the eighth to fifteenth centuries. Their merchants traveled to Mogadishu in modern Somalia on the east coast of Africa to Calicut in India to the port of Quanzhou on China’s southeast coast. They linked Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  Ships laden with cargoes of gold, spices, medicines, and numerous other products traversed the Indian Ocean and then on to the South China Sea.

The influence of these traders went beyond the simple exchange of goods. They introduced Islam to many regions in Asia and simultaneously exposed the Arab and Persian worlds to Chinese decorative objects. The 1998 discovery of the Belitung shipwreck, off the coast of Indonesia, of a ninth-century Arab dhow attests to the scale of the trade and to the splendid works of art that played a role in such commerce. Excavators found sixty thousand unique and high-quality Chinese ceramics and gold objects, many of which are now housed in a museum in Singapore. The Chinese ceramics that actually reached the Arab and Persian worlds would naturally have a significant influence on Islamic art.

The beauty of Shangri La and its idyllic location prompt many such reflections about art as well as about “globalization,” much before that term gained currency in the twentieth century. A spectacular museum of Islamic art in Hawai’i offers a perfect symbol of globalization.

2014.6_20140614_015About the Guest Author:

Morris Rossabi is Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York and Columbia University, and has taught and conducted research on Chinese, Inner Asian and Islamic culture. Author and editor of more than twenty books, including Khubilai Khan and A History of China, he has participated in exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He served as Chair of the Arts and Culture Board of the Soros Foundation also been granted fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, the Smith Richardson Foundation among other organizations. In 2015-2016 he lectured at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Rijksmuseum, Salzburg University and the University of Colorado.  He has been an advisor at Shangri La periodically since 2002 and has presented lectures here in 2012 and 2014.



A Few of Our Favorite Things: Crenellations

The following is a guest post by historic preservation intern Alison Chiu.

The field of historic preservation is full of unanticipated treasures!

Left: The unique crenellations enhance the intricate pattern of the stenciled cornice and columns, as well as details of the tile work at the Playhouse façade. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2012.)            Right: The foundation of the Playhouse was laid in 1937, and the basic structure was complete by winter of that year. The crenellations, not pictured here, were added to the roofline during the spring of 1939. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i.

 I recently began the broad task of creating an inventory of Shangri La’s on-site and stored architectural elements. Working with Operations Manager Bill Miyaji, we began by diving into years of accumulated architectural storage in the basement. Amidst piles of bronze door hardware and long-abandoned projects of partially carved white marble, we stumbled upon many treasures including an unmarked black bag of trefoil-design ceramic picket tiles (the likes of which currently line the edge of bougainvillea and hibiscus beds at the central courtyard and along the swimming pool), as well as a 1938 Leonard thermostatic mixing valve, an operating device designed to mix water from two separate supply lines in order to provide a user-controlled shower temperature as desired. Our most exciting find, however, was a pile of dusty, old wooden block forms.

Ten large wooden pieces, measuring approximately 1 foot by 2-1/2 feet and 3 inches thick, were inconspicuously stacked upon a shelf along with a jumble of smaller wood pieces, almost resembling toys, piled on top. We were intrigued by the distinct sharp, curved lines of the larger items. As we looked more closely and began to lay a couple pieces out on the ground, it became apparent that we had found original formwork that was used to make the concrete crenellations that decorate the Playhouse roof! These wooden pieces date back to 1939 and are still in very good condition today.

Left: Concrete was poured into this wooden formwork, troweled off to make the top surface level, and left to cure before removing the formwork and inset pieces to produce an ornament like the ones seen in the right image. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2012.) Right: Concrete crenellations adorn the parapet walls, seen here at the Playhouse makai roof. Each individual crenellation that adorns the Playhouse mauka and makai roofs was handcrafted on-site in 1939. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2011.)

In 1938, the Cromwells traveled to Isfahan, Iran, and brought back photographs of the Chihil Sutun, a pavilion built in the middle of the seventeenth century during the reign of Shah Abbas II. This pavilion served as an inspiration for the Playhouse. The façade of the Playhouse, which sits along a major visual axis of the site, depicts a series of elongated columns and intricately stenciled designs at the cornice and ceiling of the main portico and is mirrored in the clear blue reflection of the saltwater swimming pool. Historically, the Playhouse served as quarters for guests of the Cromwells, and as a recreation area for army and navy officers stationed in Hawai‘i during World War II.

Left: Two complimentary pieces of wooden formwork, used for the production of the corner crenellated ornament at the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2012.) Right: Close-up view of a corner crenellation at the makai roof of the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: Alison Chiu, 2011.)

Not only are the recently discovered formwork pieces interesting from an architectural and construction technology perspective (potentially providing information about historic practices in the concrete industry, as well as methods of ornamental concrete production and availability of local building materials), they are also indispensable tools that may prove useful if additional crenellations need to be made in the future.

That exciting moment of discovery, as well as contact with the tangible product of an experienced craftsperson, is always a humbling experience and one of the most rewarding aspects of being involved in historic preservation. We invite you to  visit Shangri La and discover the beauty of art, landscape, and architecture yourself!

About the Guest Author: A recent graduate of the Master of Science program in Historic Preservation at Columbia University, Alison Chiu is currently working as a consultant to the Foundation (June-September, 2012). Following her 2011 summer internship at Shangri La, Chiu is currently developing a system to adequately record Shangri La’s intensive stewardship efforts through capital projects, building operations and grounds work for present and future staff and researchers. Her research and documentation include creation of a cyclical repair and maintenance plan for the site, as well as co-collaboration on institutional archives policy for Shangri La’s newly-created historic preservation materials library. While at Columbia University, she conducted research on historic wall drainage systems and will present an illustrated lecture on her graduate thesis work, The Evolution of the Weep-Hole, at the 2012 Association for Preservation Technology Conference in Charleston, South Carolina.




Journey to the East: Ruminations on a Sixteenth-Century Chronicle

Photo by Paul Chesley, National Geographic photographer

In January 2012, Venetian merchant Marco Polo paid a visit to Shangri La’s Playhouse, where he recounted—often humorously—his travels on the Silk Road and the difficulties he encountered attempting to communicate with Chinese emperor Kublai Khan.  The occasion was the premiere of Journey to the East: Ruminations on a Sixteenth-Century Chronicle, an original puppet theater presentation written and performed by father–daughter team Michael and Layla Schuster of the Honolulu-based Hourglass Theatre. Balinese gamelan master and musician Made Widana accompanied the production with original music.

“I always envisioned premiering Journey to the East in the Playhouse at Shangri La,” said Schuster, who played Marco Polo. “I felt that the integration of materials from the Middle East and South Asia collected by Doris Duke during her travels tells a visual story appropriate for Journey to the East.  The Iranian Qajar tilework that surrounds the fireplace and the stained glass window in the Playhouse provide the perfect backdrop for the performance.”

A variety of puppets, including marionettes from South Asia, represented the colorful cast of characters Marco Polo encountered on his journey. Textiles, costumes and objects that Schuster collected during his extensive travels throughout the Middle East and Asia decorated the stage and provided plenty of ambiance.

Photo by Paul Chesley, National Geographic photographer

Schuster, who has a doctorate in Asian theater, got the idea for Journey to the East two years ago in China. He saw an Afghani kilim (carpet) in a bazaar in Beijing and started thinking about Marco Polo’s travels and the complexities of trade and communication along the Silk Route.

As Curator of the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Schuster has devoted his professional career to using material culture to tell stories and to increase understanding between East and West.  His daughter Layla, who played  a young traveler and several other characters in Journey to the East, has a background in South Indian puppetry and modern dance. She currently works as an educator and artist in projects that link theater and community. Michael added, “It was such a great experience working with my daughter Layla and having the opportunity of passing forty years of puppetry experience to her.”

Playhouse Pond & Garden

As always, the grounds and maintenance staff at Shangri La continue to address major repair and maintenance needs in the buildings and the landscape.  Most
recently, they have renovated the Playhouse pond and garden.  The pond area was emptied and decommissioned several years ago after heavy rains and the subsequent flooding of the Playhouse, a building modeled on the 17th-century royal pavilion in Isfahan, Iran, called the Chihil Sutun

Following the removal of a few trees to open up the space and let in sun; the addition of new lighting and landscaping; and the installation of a new pump and filter system,
this area is lovely once again.  This project is a very appealing improvement to
the Playhouse, which serves as home to visiting scholars and artists-in-residence
and also as the venue for most programs.

Playhouse pond & garden before work
Playhouse pond & garden after work

Many thanks to Shangri La’s Facilities & Grounds staff for the wonderful job!