Yucatecan houses have many distinctive features, but none are as consistently cherished as the beauty of pasta tile floors.
With an absence of reliable clay in Yucatán, and the threat of termites to wood structures, historic homes here have walls of mamposteria, a technique where rocks are piled up and cemented over. Some walls are as much as twenty-six inches thick. It keeps rooms cooler in the Yucatecan heat, but makes for challenges when trying to insert new wiring or plumbing. Many discover that removing even a small stone can bring much of the wall crashing down. It explains why in many historic homes wiring and plumbing is not hidden, but quite visibly affixed to the surfaces of walls!
Modern houses here are entirely constructed with cement block or poured concrete. In our house every room has a different ceiling height and a slight slope to insure drainage of the roof. Few lines in the house are actually straight or perpendicular.
Many traditional homes use train rails as ceiling beams, with smaller wooden cross beams; this novel appearance is highly desirable to expats seeking renovation projects. Our house has steel ceiling beams with concrete blocks dropped between them, and a secondary plaster coating. (Beware: the density of walls and floors here is often problematic for wifi transmission!)
But the most coveted aspect of old homes here is a floor of encaustic cement tile, known as “pasta tile.” Originally produced in France and Spain, these first came to Yucatan as ballast on Spanish trading vessels. Once here, the tiles were discarded on beaches so cargo could be loaded for the return trip to Europe. Local folk were hardly inclined to ignore such a resource, and soon were manufacturing the tiles themselves. Unlike most tiles, which are glazed and fired, pasta tiles are made in molds into which bits of colored cement paste are painstakingly poured. A solid colored cement is poured as backing and the tiles are hydraulically pressed and left on their edges to dry in the sun. This guarantees greater depth and durability of the color, often extending through a third to half of the tile. The thickness renders them less susceptible to color disfigurement from chipping, but being unfired, they are still easily damaged. Manufacturers today reproduce tiles using original molds, so houses with badly damaged tiles can often have them fully restored. In some cases historic floors are easily cleaned and restored; in others they are unsalvageable after centuries of use and neglect.
The variety of colors and designs in pasta tiles is extensive. They often configure to form larger repeating patterns and combinations. Most homes feature a different design in each room. Tiles are often laid in the center of a room with a contrasting border creating the illusion of an area rug. In a climate where the humidity poses challenges for cloth rugs, it is a means of enlivening decor while simplifying cleaning and maintenance.
Though our house was built in an era when the use of pasta tiles was being abandoned, we still wanted to incorporate this iconic Yucatecan feature. We decided to have a mosaic of pasta tiles installed on the wall at the end of the gallery. We had arranged four tiles in a larger pattern as a background for mariachi statues in our garden, but in most wall applications, architects have recently opted for varieties of tiles in seemingly random layouts, rather like a patchwork quilt. This appealed to me, one of my favorite childhood memories being the quilts made by my great-grandmothers.
Once delivered to the house, our tiles were carefully laid out and re-arranged on the gallery floor before the week-long, and painstaking installation. The albanils (masons) were precise and uncompromising as the tiles were laid, but it was just a bit nerve-wracking to see the acrobatic positions they took on the home-made scaffolding during the process.
There is a panoply of colors and designs in the final product. One can gaze at length on the myriad internal patterns. Only six of the tiles are unique, and some occur as many as six or seven times. It is interesting to envision the larger patterns possible from the various combinations, some very classical, others quite deco and modern, like an Escher print, and, most highly valued among Yucatecans, tiles with pixelated floral designs. When finished, the tiles are treated with carnauba wax and polished with purple gas. To frame the design, we brought in stone masons to attach native macedonia stone from southern Yucatan. The final product offers a remarkable vista when one enters the front door of the house, and wonderful shadows appear on the mosaic as the sun moves across the afternoon sky.