In Yucatan, architects are reviving an ancient Mayan stucco technique for contemporary buildings, merging modern architecture with regional history and culture. The technique is called “chukum,” a term derived from the colloquial name for the Havardia albicans tree native to Mexico. Made with chukum tree bark, the material has several defining qualities that separate it from traditional stucco, including impermeable properties and a natural earthy color. Though chukum initially fell out of use following Spanish conquest of the Maya civilization, it was rediscovered and reemployed by Salvador Reyes Rios of the architecture firm Reyes Rios + Larrain Arquitectos in the late 1990’s, initiating a resurgence of use in the area.
The chukum tree is a semi-hardwood thorny tree found throughout the Yucatan peninsula, used also for dying textiles and tanning leather. To create chukum stucco, bark from the tree is boiled twice and then mixed with cement, after which it can be used for finishing concrete walls or even swimming pools. The chukum bark gives the stucco its water-resistant quality, distinguishing it from other types of stucco which must be finished with artificial additives or topcoats to achieve the same level of impenetrability. For this reason, it can be used both indoors and outdoors. The chukum bark also naturally gives the stucco its earthy, pink-ish color, creating a warm, rustic atmosphere for Yucatan buildings and homes.
Building with chukum incurs some difficulties – in particular, chukum finish is highly delicate and has a slower bonding time with cement, making it difficult to apply in rain without proper precautions. However, it also boasts wide-ranging benefits. It is a sustainable natural material, and its nativity to the Yucatan peninsula allows it to be used in the area with low transportation costs and low embodied energy expenditure. The natural coloring of the material also eliminates the need for artificial dyes, while its natural water-resistance eliminates the need for synthetic coatings. Finally, the revitalization of this ancient technique reconnects contemporary Yucatan buildings with their Mayan precedents, making the material culturally significant as well.
These benefits have facilitated the increasingly widespread use of chukum in Mexico, including in both new constructions and preservation projects. Below are ten exceptional examples of chukum use in contemporary Mexican architecture.
Chukum stucco was used in all of the interior walls and exterior facades of this apartment complex in Playa Del Carmen. Designed by Reyes Rios + Larrain Arquitectos, the firm that spearheaded the rediscovery of chukum, the building’s finishing was applied by local masons trained in the chukum technique who had collaborated with Reyes Rios + Larrain Arquitectos since the late 1990’s.
Designed by the same firm, Casa Sisal is the first architectural project finished entirely with chukum in the history of Yucatecan architecture. It similarly emphasizes artisanal construction with local labor as well as sustainability, facilitated in part by the natural chukum finishing.
The widespread use of chukum in this 2018 residential home keeps it resistant to the region’s tropical climate and occasional heavy rain. The material’s natural, rustic look complements the home’s wooden paneling and natural setting as well.
The warm tones of this home’s chukum walls pair beautifully with its light lattice walls, earthy bricks, and rustic furniture.
While the exterior of this house is a brilliant ochre red, the interior of the Casa Amaranto Tulum is made with soft pink chukum, creating a deliberate contrast between the home’s public and private views.
Casa Mango’s use of chukum both ties it to its location in Merida, capital of Yucatan and the site of the ancient Maya city of T’hó, and creates a warm, neutral backdrop for the home’s extensive art collection.
This semi-underground dwelling utilizes sculptural organic forms and the earthy texture and tone of chukum walls to create an environment deeply connected to its natural surroundings.
The façade of this multifamily housing project in Merida is coated entirely in chukum, imparting a strong Yucatecan identity to this distinguished structure in Yucatan’s capital.
Another Reyes Rios + Larrain Arquitectos design, the interior and façade walls of Casa GG-15 are once again coated entirely in chukum. Combined with the home’s wooden paneling and textile furniture, the chukum stucco integrates Casa GG-15 with its tropical setting of Merida.
Finally, David Cervera’s El Palmar combines neutral chukum walls with pink cement and blue tiling to create a soft pastel color palette for this summer home in Chuburna.