Much of the Basque Country’s history can be explained through the fronton. The fronton plaza space has been described by notable Basque architect Iñaki Uriarte as the Basque agora. Used as more than just a playing field for pelota, the fronton has been the witness to innumerable urban transformations, from being used as a gathering space for political forums to evolving into a place for economic trade.
The fronton originated in the Basque Country primarily as a space to play pelota — in Basque, pilotaleku literally means “the place where pelota is practiced.” While the sport has been played throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, pelota’s significance in the Basque Country is inextricably linked to its cultural values. At its essence, an integral part of the Basque identity is its division into ancestral and territorial bands and pelota was played as a symbolic form of conflict resolution between adversaries (González Abrisketa, 2005).
The 16th century marked the peak of Basque pelota, a period characterized by rival factions defined by family lineages — Martínez de Oña and Gamboa were the most well-known families — ever driven by honor and the quest for recognition throughout the land. While violent clashes between bands of peers could lead to devastating results, pelota was a way for Basques to address confrontation in a physical, yet less destructive way, on the fronton. Representing their bands, opponents — dressed in all-white with red/blue or red/white sashes, which displayed the primary colors of their families’ coats of arms — took to the fronton to play these matches; the result of these contentious bouts being a collective catharsis among once-divided factions.
The existence of the pilotaleku meant much more to villages than being simply a place for sport; its significance extended to make it a social, political, and cultural hub. Centrally located, its proximity to economic, administrative, and religious institutions allowed it to integrate into the community’s neural network — giving the locals a place for festivals, political rallies, and artistic events. As a public space, the fronton’s social significance granted opportunities for collective emancipation.
Spatially, the fronton’s configuration redefined existing public spaces. Initially, the fronton’s position in the village took advantage of preexisting urban structures such as alleyways, retaining walls, and ramparts, necessitating only a sounding wall for opponents to play pelota. In addition to the main wall, the outer boundaries of the playing field were defined by the physical limits of the area, i.e. adjoining walls, grassy knolls, changes in slope. Tied to this, the scoring system of the game is based on metric distances, so that the points at play are linked to territorial concepts.
The active fronton symbolizes the intrinsic conflict inherent to coexistence; therefore, historically, Basque public space has been seen as a venue where political confrontation and resolution take place as visible, traceable activities. Though the Basque Country has begun a healing process recognizing the casualties born from acts of violence from all sides during its independence struggle, the related armed conflict that has plagued the Basque Country in its quest for sovereignty from Spain and France can clearly be defined as a form of “public violence.”
The ceasefire declaration in the past decade, among other circumstances, has changed the sense and value of public spaces in Basque cities and villages. Aside from recent memorials, all traces of past conflict have been erased and hidden from public view in order to achieve a sense of peace and establish a controlled state of democracy. Urban planning has fueled the disappearance of the Basque way of understanding and using public spaces. Moreover, today’s public spaces are afflicted in a way which brings loss of their historical context, devoid of local significance and replaced by a modern, international image; they are no longer spaces representing peer adversaries, but, rather, the power of the state and economy.
The fate of frontons in Basque cities has gone the same route as the old markets, following a course of slow and silent disappearance, often being substituted and dislocated for new buildings and urban development. The quest for control has replaced the multiplicity of use with monofunctionality, and the chase for order has erased improvisation for a programmed agenda.
The demolition of the Arroka fronton in Donostia-San Sebastián in 2017 illustrates the impact of urban regeneration on public spaces, uprooting memory and incorporating an appearance of a falsely-paced existence. Arroka was situated in the narrow streets of the Old Amara neighborhood, and the homogeneity and standardization of public spaces pursued by the intended expansion of the city identified the fronton as a trouble spot. The municipality explained to the neighbors that allowing the fronton to remain was a problem for the future of the area. Paradoxically, the new ideas for the city determined the preexistence as a difficulty in itself, while the real problem lay in the planning’s failure to understand the essence and traces of the place.
At first, the planned urban regeneration for the area where the fronton was located was considered to be maintenance. The intention to demolish the fronton came suddenly, only after crews had started working on the site. As soon as neighbors were notified of the immediate demolition of Arroka, the resistance movement was organized. Demonstrations paralyzed urban works and forced a negotiation with municipal representatives, who pledged a participatory process to discuss the future of the fronton. The neighborhood association organized open meetings and activities around the fronton to gather support against its demolition. A group of academics from the School of Architecture in San Sebastian wrote a public message defending the maintenance of Arroka, and local artists and anthropologists also took a stance in favor of protecting the fronton.
Meanwhile, the municipality worked in silence to lay the groundwork for demolition. The main argument used to position the neighbors against the fronton was that the clash between the wall of the fronton and the new urbanization produced an insecure and dark backside. The wall of the fronton was symbolized as a source of violence. The fronton as a public space and its memorial use was never discussed, and the promise of the participatory process was simplified and reduced to a survey. The neighbors were invited to choose between two images: one, elaborated by the municipality, suggested a plaza with lush vegetation which would replace the fronton and, another, a home-made and precarious drawing manufactured by a neighbor in support of renovating the fronton.
The ultimate fate of the Arroka fronton did not involve a public discussion to take into account alternative ways of redefining the existing city, which could have avoided the destruction of the area’s historic value and the disruption of existing inhabitant experiences — as the shared experiences of urban spaces produce the architecture of the neighborhoods, which make cities habitable.
In the end, Donostia has evolved into a city with no visible discord or differences, lacking a social give and take, similar to an empty body or shell, condemned to give life to standardized structures and massive tourism. In the postmodern era, the Basque fronton plaza, functioning as a Basque agora, has been rendered an unfruitful space — undesirable to politicians, working for a city built by branding campaigns — whose fate has followed a similar path of development seen in other major world cities.