May 19, 2009
Waikiki is sort of like Venice. You are a tourist. No way around it. You are not a native. Instead of gondolas at every turn, there are tiki torches. And rum.
Honolulu is also a strange stew of Miami and Bangkok with a bit of Vegas thrown in. It’s like Bangkok in places because of the density, dark garages, and hideous architecture. And Miami, because after all, it is American, and you do end up at the shore sooner or later.
Diamond Head from the water
Most folks are as near naked as they can be. But that isn’t what makes it so much like Vegas. One of the main attractions is walking from high-rise hotel to high-rise hotel and checking out the luxurious lobbies. The lobbies are smaller and not as outrageous as those in Vegas. Some, like the Halekulani Hotel, are intimidating, but if you act like you belong and walk towards the bar, nobody bothers you. Unlike Vegas, where the show is largely within a sealed environment, here everything opens up. Gorgeous furniture and art are just a few steps off the street, and there are no doors or windows. That part hasn’t changed in thirty-five years since my last visit.
Despite the beauty of the Halekulani’s public spaces, the buildings aren’t that interesting, and there was almost nothing to connect with from my memory of the old hotel. I remember a group of modest bungalows in an overgrown garden. Now there are high-rise slabs with pitched roofs that are supposed to recall the original buildings but don’t. The bar and dining room still have a great view, the beach is still miniscule, but it’s not a world apart like it used to be.
Royal Hawaiian Hotel from the beach
On the other hand, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel still feels distinct from the crass commercialism of Waikiki, despite the Royal Hawaiian Mall across the rear lawn and the towering Sheraton. Known fondly as the Pink Palace, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel once defined the concept of the luxurious sanctuary in the exotic tropics. Now it feels like the last defense. Just down the beach, the historic Moana Surfrider resort has a lush banyan tree courtyard, but a hideous 1950s-era addition. The Royal Hawaiian’s 1960s-era addition is relatively inoffensive. The recent renovation adds a layer of luxury that doesn’t quite add up. The men’s room off the ocean lanai wasn’t remodeled, and some bronze sliding doors to the retail shops were not removed. A green window frame should have replaced the dark aluminum windows. There seem to have been a few test windows that look great, but they haven’t finished the job. It feels like a partial facelift. However, the staff is gracious and not obsequious. The women are greeted with leis and the men with a necklace of dark beads. My room was spacious and outfitted with appropriate fabrics. Even though I faced the garden, I could hear the ocean. I do wish that Starwood would stop charging wireless fees for their more expensive properties. It doesn’t make them more competitive in this economic environment.
What remains unchanged in Honolulu is the light and the warm water. The best time to get a beach chair is in the early morning and the late afternoon. Watching the light settle on Diamond Head allows you to imagine it’s the late 1920s and you are one of a few dozen people who have discovered this paradise. Just when you think you are lucky enough to have secured a beach chair under a pink umbrella in the Royal Hawaiian’s strip of sand, you realize there are others who have their favorite chairs reserved in perpetuity.
Despite the occasional elitist string of deck chairs at the luxury hotels, Honolulu is weirdly democratic. There are lots of European and Japanese tourists, wedding parties, and Americans of almost every economic strata and hue. Eventually they all end up at the beach, if not in the water. If you want to mingle with folks you would never meet at home, take a sunset cruise on a catamaran. One dollar mai tais bring out the best in people.
The real purpose of my visit was to see Shangri La, the Doris Duke Estate. It’s a bit of a trial to get tickets, because you have to transact over the phone, and all you get is a message machine. The touring is administered by the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and it feels a bit like taking a tour in a third world country. You go several miles north of Waikiki to catch a rickety jitney to take you several miles south of Waikiki. But the good news is that the Honolulu Academy of Art itself is an exquisite piece of tropical courtyard architecture designed by Bertram Goodhue and worth a visit. So leave yourself most of day for the Duke House Tour, the Academy, and a nap. (The website is www.honoluluacademy.org.)
Doris Duke Estate: master bedroom wing
Doris Duke Estate
Before my tour, I did not read any biography or see any of the movies about Doris Duke. I wanted to appreciate the house for itself. The home, designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, is the size of a normal house in Bel Air or Beverly Hills; it is not a Hearst Castle–type villa. At some level it was an indulgence, but it was a serious indulgence. The house itself is not a brilliant architectural statement, but it is a brilliant interior experience. Apparently, Doris Duke was the orchestrator.
The jitney moves slowly down a steep drive through the green leafy tunnel to the banyan tree courtyard. Because there is no air conditioning, the tour guides hand out handsome fans as soon as you arrive. Basically all you see are two perpendicular walls and two doors. You wonder which one will open first. The door to the garden leads to a Mughal-style garden, which is largely decorative. You are not allowed to wander beyond the shaded terrace inside the entry. The other door is the main entrance to the house. This wall is one of the best architectural moments on the entire estate. Anybody who stood at this front door knew they were about to enter the vacation home of one of the wealthiest women in the world. A long blank wall with little relief tantalizes. Inside the front door is a cool dark reception area sparkling with multicolored light from high Spanish-style windows. As your eyes adjust, they see a screen that obscures an interior courtyard surrounded by thin mirrored columns. Each space you enter beckons you to another space beyond. Yet there is no clear path, the plan meanders. House as long seduction. Despite the hot day, the house was cool and comfortable. As you enter the living room, your eye goes out to the pool, guesthouse, and Diamond Head beyond. The guard pushes a button, and the living room window descends into the floor as it does in Mies’s Tugendhat house in Brno, Czechoslovakia. There weren’t many of those in the late 1930s! Various windows, shades, and shutters temper the direct view and sound of the Pacific. In many ways, this was my favorite architectural move. The living room does not open to the ocean directly; only a few of these shaded windows do. Originally, the dining pavilion was completely glazed on two sides. In the 1960s, Duke removed the original aquatic displays and added fabric to enclose the room and make it resemble a tent. Living on the ocean can be too much. Duke’s bedroom and bath, which were not on the tour, for reasons I didn’t understand, also have a highly screened view of the ocean. On the opposite side from the sea, the suite opens to a private courtyard. The ability to mitigate the overwhelming grandeur of the site is one of the design accomplishments the tour does not address.
Our tour guide spent too much time at the beginning, and we were rushed through some splendid Turkish-style rooms at the conclusion. Apparently Duke’s house could not accommodate rebuilding the room from the Damascus home of a wealthy merchant in one space, so she recycled the pieces into two rooms. I don’t think Duke was so concerned about the precise restoration of any artistic fragment as she was about creating a collage that suited her sensibility.
The curatorial direction at Shangri La appears to be moving away from Miss Duke’s celebrity. Given that her creation has little to do with scholarship, therein lies a conundrum. Is this a collection meant for scholarly study or aesthetic pleasure? While the collection was probably created largely for personal enjoyment, Duke left instructions in her will that the residence and collection be left to study for scholars of Islamic art and culture. But how could the benefactor be left out of that equation? What will interest visitors, the breadth of the collection of Islamic art or Doris Duke and her curious life? On my tour, the guide discouraged speculation about Miss Duke and gave only the barest outline of her life. But she did admit that most of the visitors were more interested in Miss Duke than Islamic art.
Doris Duke Estate: view to public beach
Doris Duke Estate: roof pavilion
Doris Duke Estate: pool and guest house
As the small, beautifully printed book about the house from the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art points out, Doris Duke was the only individual continuously involved during Shangri La’s active inhabitation. Amazingly enough, to my untrained eye, the parts that we saw during our tour add up to a beautiful coherent whole, not a jumble. For example, Doris Duke placed the most valuable artifact, the mihrab from the tomb of Imamzadeh Yahya in Iran, on one of the main axes of the house, even though the whole purpose of this kind of niche is to indicate the direction of Mecca—which it does not in this location. Again, this suited her needs. It’s difficult to know the nature of Doris Duke’s intense interest in Islamic art. Was she collecting these works as unique aesthetic objects independent of context or as part of some larger stream of thought? Or did she begin in one place and end up in another? Why was she interested in supporting the study of Islamic arts? Besides the interest in specific pieces within the collection, it is hard to see how the context supports the study of this kind of art. As a place to write, or meet, one could hardly imagine a more beautiful setting. Perhaps that will be its greatest value, a repository that reminds us that cultures that we do not understand require further dialogue.