If you want to learn about chukum and you turn to Google, you’ll mainly see links to a restaurant in Bangalore called Chakum Chukum, home of “Calcutta on a Roll.” It looks quite good. But I want to know about the chukum associated with the Yucatán, not India. The smooth water-proof stucco that requires the resin from the bark of the native Havardia albicans, or chukum tree. That’s the chukum I want to learn about. Our architect is using it on our house, and despite early reservations about it, I really couldn’t be more thrilled.
On Friday, the day our architect’s office sends us batches of work-site photos, we saw chukum was being applied to some exterior walls, starting with the walls that face our neighbors. It’s satisfying to see the cinder block covered up finally, like frosting on a wedding cake. It’s the first finished anything we’ve seen on the house.
Chukum is an ancient Maya technique that, after some experimentation, was reintroduced in 1996 by Salvador Reyes Ríos, an architect involved in multiple hacienda restorations at the time. Today, it’s available to all architects, but I can’t find any evidence of it being used anywhere but on the peninsula. The Mayans used chukum to seal water cisterns. It imparts a translucent texture and, even though you could tint it, its natural, soft color is what I have wanted all along. We thought about our preferred color scheme, and having self-diagnosed as burned out and frazzled, we decided to avoid bright, vivid colors in favor of a naturalistic palette. Bright colors will be introduced through art or fabric, and maybe accent walls. Chukum has to be applied to a wall in one working session. The area where you left off and continued later will always be visible. It can’t be patched cleanly if you’re filling in a crack or hole. But it does resist water, and its natural color is a pleasing off-white. Chukum can finish either interior or exterior walls, or the walls of your swimming pool, which makes sense considering how the Maya originally saw chukum as applicable to lining cisterns.
In March, a chukumalicious hacienda was featured at ArchDaily, which explains the technique more fully than I’ve seen anywhere else. In summary, chukum bark is boiled twice, and the resulting resin is mixed with lime and sascab limestone sand, and then applied quickly with a trowel. There are other types of polished plasters (which also entail lime), but chukum adapts local techniques and applies natural materials found in Yucatán. Originally we wanted a house that reflected the region, and although our furnishings, décor and finishes have become less “hacienda” and more contemporary, we now find ourselves virtually wrapping ourselves in the peninsula. What better way to connect to the region’s heritage?