Author: Sergio Galaz
Cradle and grave of democracies and dictatorships, protests and parades, political representation and practice: the plaza and its adjacent typologies are probably the spaces that most explicitly articulate the concrete idea of the public sphere in architecture. In Mexico, if we look carefully, we can make out the segregated nature of the public sphere in two of its most traditional forms of open space: the zócalo1 on the one hand, and the atrium on the other.
The zócalo is essentially an empty rectangle flanked by a church, the city hall or a government building and a commercial arcade. It’s a chilling diagram of realpolitik. It defines the ‘public’ as residual space, developed at the fringes of three kinds of power: the monopoly over the representation and creation of meaning (the church), the monopoly over legitimization of violence (the government) and that which derives from the concentration of economic power (the merchants). As the watering hole where those three powers meet, the zócalo celebrates the spatial continuity—and through it, the social union—of those who hold the nation’s political, economic and cultural power. As recently as the early 20th century, that social group—small in size and densely interconnected—referred to itself as the “Political Nation.”
Of course, the Political Nation directs. And do that it, it must have directors: subjects objectified as hierarchically inferior, subjected to the plans of the zócalo. Formally identical to the zócalo, but its obverse in terms of urban delimitations and program, the Atrium is the concrete tectonic realization of that task. Encircling the façade of a church, the atrium is enclosed by a wall on its three remaining sides. It is the emblematic space of the spiritual conquest: the salvation through Catholic conversion of millions of pagans condemned to hell. The atrium brings together, in public, those who have been colonized, announces them as subjects requiring redemption, and baptizes them as members of an unequal republic, custodial participants of a political community made in the image, likeness and to the advantage of those who unilaterally declared themselves as its guardians.
Over time, zócalos spread along with the cluster of Spanish cities that claimed for themselves the fertile plains where, before, the blossoming urban centers of Mesoamerica’s nations had grown. Atria, on the other hand, sprouted in the population centers of native peoples: indigenous villages, the populous indigenous neighborhoods of the Spanish cities and in the hill communities where a specifically indigenous social structure survived under cover of distance from the centers and rural hinterlands of Spanish power.
It was in these corners of colonized Mesoamerica, which would later become the brand new Republic of Mexico, where, in the 1920s, a new configuration of open space first appeared: a concrete platform measuring 28x15 meters with two masts sustaining hoops rather than flags. Basketball courts had arrived.
At the time, the basketball courts were just atria in sporty cosplay. In effect, they were sent by the new revolutionary elites who had claimed for themselves Mexico City’s Zócalo in order to realize their catechistic mission. This time the conversion would not be spiritual but rather biopolitical. Responding to the image of a mountainous countryside inhabited by ignorant subjects, lazy and idle, who lived outside the historical redemption projected by the post-revolutionary Mexican state, the basketball courts were placed in the mountains with a clear mandate to eradicate alcoholism and to fight against the vagrancy of those who lived on the hillsides. A strange coincidence, demanding a new redemption for the progeny of those who’d been subject to a forced salvation just four hundred years before. Curious, as well, to wield a basketball court as a weapon of sanitization for a public policy that viewed the health conditions of the mountains as a moral failing rather than a social opportunity. Foolish zócalos accusing the mountains for no reason…
It’s difficult to know if the basketball courts produced the health effects desired by the elites who’d sent them. What we know for certain is that, through them, basketball spread like gunpowder throughout these regions, leaving in its wake whole galaxies of teams, fans and tournaments. We also know that, parallel to this success, unexpected uses emerged from these basketball courts. Markets sprouted from their cheap and resistant concrete surfaces. They hosted weddings, funerals, concerts. Unexpected things burst back to life: the true customs and traditions of the locals. The basketball court was colonized by the colonized. That operation was realized with such success that the collective consciousness of the court’s arrival seems to have been replaced by the certainty of its immanence. It would seem that the basketball courts have always been there; as though the ones who owed an explanation for their presence were the markets and municipal buildings settled alongside them.
In the communities of the sierra, the basketball court doesn’t only house basketballs. It is also home to a different kind of public sphere, an alternative to that proposed by the zócalo-atrium binary.
The sphere of the basketball court reclaims for the communities themselves the autonomy to create symbols and representations for themselves. The court has become a metonym for basketball as _the sport of the sierra _and, as such, for one of the symbols made by and for the communities themselves. Today, the efflorescence of basketball tournaments open exclusively to people from those communities and their diasporas in Mexico and the United States demonstrates the power of basketball and the spaces in which its practiced to reproduce and stabilize a feeling of communal belonging both intergenerationally and internationally.
The basketball court doesn’t limit itself to demands for autonomy within the demarcated public spaces of the communities. It also reclaims primacy of the public space over political, intellectual and economic court intrigues. If, in the zocalo, the public is the negative space derived from the outlines of the existing powers, in the basketball court, the public space becomes the site that generates those powers: it is itself the site where temporary markets are set up, where communal work is assigned, where orchestral concerts are played, where the authorities are elected.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the public sphere of the basketball court is a denationalizing sphere in more than one sense. It realizes that task, first, by having no formal state function. It is not a civic space that tolerates profane uses; on the contrary it is a profane space that consents to civic use. The basketball court also makes public space less static, less dull. It doesn’t fix programmatic uses in specific places: it brings them all together in continuous and unpredictable flux. At any given moment, basketballs might fly by and footballs might skid across the ground; kids’ games, acts of flirtation, disapproval, rest, enjoyment of the sun or the shade. Quite the opposite of the zócalo and the atrium, which are oriented toward the production of homogenous publics through hierarchical relations, the multiple and volatile uses of the basketball court propose a unified space for enunciating, negotiating and resolving frictions and cleavages. It proposes an unusual inversion of hierarchies: put the political before the Political.
The basketball court, ultimately, articulates an ideal alternative to the public sphere: communal, autonomous, decolonized, diverse. From within the area delimited by these corners, in communities marked by the colonial experience, emerges the possibility of more and more spaces for socialization that turn toward the construction of common futures that are horizontal, playful and diverse.
The term used colloquially for many main squares in Mexican cities, particularly the vast central plaza of the national capital, derived from the word for ‘plinth.’ [Trans.] ↩︎
Translation: Michael Snyder
Proofreading: Jaime Soler Frost