Photographs by James Fennell.
They say that Cuernavaca (Cow Horn) in the Mexican state of Morelos is amongst the finest cities in the world. Under a flawless cool blue sky, it enjoys a spring climate all year round. The surrounding mountains and plains echo gently with the hums and chirrups of Mexican wildlife.
This is the ancient Aztec town Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés chose for his HQ before proceeding with his annihilation of the indigenous Aztec and Mayan peoples in the early 16th century. 300 years later, Maximillian, the Austrian-born Emperor of Mexico, built himself a residence here. In more recent times, it became the hometown of the deposed Shah of Persia. Indeed, it would seem that few members of the world elite have visited Cuernavaca and resisted the temptation to move here on a long-term basis.
The late Milan-based fashion designer Ken Scott first came to Cuernavaca when he was 56 years old. The year was 1974 and the city had lately become the preferred place of residence for Scott’s friend, the artist Robert Brady (1928-1986). It was while visiting Brady that Indiana-born Scott came across the site he would one day convert into this magnificent Mexican villa.
The house lies just off the city’s main plaza (or zócalo), tucked away behind a 40-foot high stone wall, erected by Franciscan monks in the wake of Cortés’s conquest.
A crumbling ruin suggested this had once been somebody’s home; Scott had a vision of a charming and sedate residence the instant he set eyes upon the place. His friends told him he’d be mad to try and turn the place into anything useful. The challenge was set.
Scott worked closely with a local architect to create what is now called “Casa Ken Scott“. He took charge of the interior design himself, coating the walls in the same colourful silks, satins and fabrics with which he made such a name for himself in the fashion world of the 1960s.
The end result is a multi-levelled home that speaks of a great depth in imagination. The exterior is quite unlike anything else. Corridors meander and weave their way upwards, like up-market mountain paths, before concluding in some sprightly balcony or inviting terrace. From here the paradoxes of the world seem to unravel and dissipate.
One looks down upon the totally enclosed courtyard, a soothing blend of lush, fertile lawns, lemon and palm trees, a multitude of flamboyant flower beds and a swimming pool of immense magnetism.
And then one gazes up to see the towering walls of the 16th century Franciscan Cathedral, broken only by the rooftop of the Robert Brady Museum & Culture Centre and a stunning vista that unveils the seductive lowlands and hills of Cuernavaca with Popocatéptl in the far distance.
If the exterior offers a sense of other-worldliness, then the interior is refreshingly simple. Scott seems to have regarded his design as an opportunity to expand on the tremendous flare for colour and essence with which he conquered Milan.
The walls of the master-bedroom are covered in the sort of sumptuous scarlet fabrics that Montezuma himself would’ve turned Christian for. The Green Room is similarly rich and engaging, with its elegant sofas, tiled walls and wooden beams. An impressive collection of vases from across the world serves as décor in many rooms, while the artwork is clearly chosen with a view to arresting the attention of anyone attempting to rush in this laid-back home.
Among those artists to be displayed is Susan Nevelson, head designer for Scott since 1962. She first met Scott when he was getting his career kick-started in New York shortly after World War Two and worked closely with him until his death in France in February 1991. Susan Nevelson now looks after Casa Ken Scott when she is not based in New York or Milan. She believes Scott to have been one of the great artistic experimenters of the 20th century. Casa Ken Scott is certainly a worthy testament to this.
This article was written for Objekt in August 2003.