The main house at Shangri La revolves around a courtyard, an architectural feature central to a number of buildings in the Islamic world, including mosques, madrasas (religious schools), palaces, tombs and private homes. In such buildings, courtyards serve a variety of functions, including separating public and private spaces (as well as male and female ones); ensuring privacy within urban contexts favoring inward-facing façades; providing a gathering space for the faithful; and securing access to air flow and water in warm environments.
The central courtyard provides a natural haven at the heart of Shangri La while also separating its public and private spaces. The foyer, living room, and Syrian Room directly adjoin it, while the more private Mughal Suite and the service wing are located off separate hallways. At the center of the courtyard is a yellow shower tree and irises clustered around a star-shaped fountain. The perimeter arcade, which provides much-needed shade, features a wood awning supported by columns inset with reflective mica. The surrounding four walls are covered in late thirteenth through early twentieth-century Persian tilework in a variety of techniques: molded (unglazed and glazed), mosaic, and underglaze. On the upper walls are colored-glass windows—replicas of an original window on view in the foyer. At night, the courtyard is illuminated by hanging copper alloy lamps.
The primary aesthetic in the courtyard is Persian, and the majority of its architecture and tilework can be traced to Doris Duke and her husband James Cromwell’s visit to Iran in 1938. While in Isfahan, the couple documented a number of seventeenth-century palaces with large wooden pillared porches (talars) on their façades. One such palace was the Ali Qapu (High Gate, 1590–1643), which faced the city’s renowned square (maidan). The Cromwells carefully photographed this porch, and its undulating entablature supported by faceted column capitals provided the model for the courtyard’s wood awning, which is supported by twelve columns (64.43).
During their time in Isfahan, the couple also purchased or ordered the vast majority of the courtyard’s tilework from—or through—the dealer Ayoub Rabenou. The late thirteenth-century Ilkhanid panel on the northern “stepped” façade (48.100a–c), for example, was acquired from Rabenou. The dealer also arranged for the purchase of a large number of seventeenth–nineteenth-century underglaze panels originally installed on the wall of a private home in New Julfa, the city’s Armenian suburb (48.84.1). Finally, Rabenou supervised an Isfahani workshop’s creation of custom-made mosaic and underglaze tilework for the central courtyard’s remaining surfaces. This work included four mosaic grills for the upper corners (48.12.1–4); underglaze spandrels and borders for the arched entrances (48.87.1); and mosaic panels for the northern and southern façades (48.93). The latter were the most complex commissions, and both were inspired by tilework on the façade of the Masjid-i Shah (Shah Mosque, 1612–c. 1630), a congregational mosque located to the right of the Ali Qapu.