It took five men five months to build that hand hewn stone wall”, Ata tells me as we survey the 3.5 meter high structure. The wall curves along 10 meters of treescape, and is thick enough for me to dance on. And I want to, it’s so beautiful. “Three men built that one in three days”, he says, pointing to an even larger wall constructed from cinder block and skimmed in radiant turquoise concrete. “Both are built by hand, but one is a true work of art.” From where I’m standing, they both look like art.
Nearby, a cluster of workers eye me with curiosity as I watch Ismael balancing on the wall. Like a sculptor, he carefully positions a large stone before mortaring it into place. The modern day albañil, or builder, may no longer use tools made of flint, stone and sticks, but he still uses the Maya plumb-bob to create perfect vertical lines. Hecho a mano en Mexico takes on a whole new meaning as I watch these artisans, these Stone Kings, working their magic with rock unearthed from the site, using nothing but skill, simple tools and a ton of patience.
The Yucatan is one giant rock”, Atahualpa Hernandez Salazar tells me. He and Victor Cruz are partners in Estilo Arquitectura, specializing in contemporary homes filled with detail and texture, informed by materials of the Yucatan. “We like to use every stone we discover ”, he continues. “When we dig a pool, we use the rock to build interior walls. The more beautiful stones we use for garden and feature walls. And what we can’t use, we barter for concrete. ‘Green’ for us means using resources that are readily available. It means orienting the structures to maximize air flow and minimize the need for air conditioning, building by hand vs machine, thereby reducing emissions, and designing to accommodate existing flora.” I look up to see a tall tree snaking through a hole in the ceiling. “When we started this project”, Ata boasts, “there were 72 trees. Today there are still 65.”
The choreography of Yucatecan albañils is legendary, and the Stone Kings are no exception. They balance and leap on scaffolding high above the ground, tirelessly lift the equivalent of their own weight in rock and cement, all while carving stone in heat that would humble a Texan. Ata and I recently visited his albañils at Casa 72, an Estilo project resplendent with stone work. “Hola Travestido!”, Ata shouted to his main man on the scaffolding—the other workers laugh. “What did you say?”, I ask him. “That’s his nickname—Travestido—it means transvestite in Spanish (more snickers). I ask why they call him that and Ata replies “I think just to tease him.” Judging by Jose’s smile, he doesn’t seem to mind. Jose is working on a large wall covered in various sizes of stone circles. He carefully marks out the circles with red flex hose, than creates intricate patterns in and outside the circles. He’s been working on it for a month and is clearly pleased with his results. At the back of the property, another albañile draws giant circles with a nail and string that are then outlined with a delicate circumference of stone. I’m wondering if this is the Mayan version of wallpaper, and I’m already planning my next house.