The Better Block goes to Italy

Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

The original Better Block, which took place more than two years ago on Tyler at Seventh, was planned the same weekend as Oak Cliff Art Crawl, among other neighborhood festivities. “We were just trying to see how many cool things we could have going on in one weekend,” says Jason Roberts, the Better Block mastermind. Since then, creating and consulting on Better Block projects in other cities has become a full-time job for Roberts and business partner Andrew Howard. Their idea to create temporary improvements to an underused street, such as bike lanes, traffic-calming elements, café seating, plants and lighting, has sparked 31 copycats in the United States and Canada. And now the Better Block is going intercontinental. Roberts and Howard this month are headed to the Venice Bienniale of Architecture, which is held every two years and is sort of like the Olympics or World’s Fair of architecture. They will have a booth inside the American pavilion at the exhibition, and they are self-effacing about the whole thing. Big architecture firms around the world vie to get into the Bienniale, and Oak Cliff’s own Better Block guys got in by sending an email — they didn’t even apply. Curator Cathy Ho told them she had intended to invite them before they inquired about it. “We’re just these guys from Texas, like, ‘Hey can we get into the Bienniale,’ ” Roberts says, affecting a hillbilly accent. “So we get to go to Venice and talk about Oak Cliff, which is crazy.” They filmed a video introducing themselves for the exhibition, in which they play up the Texas angle. In the video, Howard looks like a hipster Custer in cowboy hat and horn-rimmed glasses, perched before an American flag. But the Better Block fits perfectly with this year’s Bienniale theme, Common Ground, which Bienniale president Paolo Baratta has described as a look at “the meanings of the spaces made by buildings: the political, social and public realms of which architecture is a part … to develop the understanding of the distinct contribution that architecture can make in defining the common ground of the city.” Roberts and Howard are not architects. But they seem to have stumbled upon a better way to suggest changes in a city’s design, just by showing it. Most such changes call for public meetings, which usually are poorly attended, and where fear often dominates discussions, Howard says. Everyone comes up with the worst-case scenario, instead of focusing on positive change. He offers the Fort Worth Avenue charrette as an example. That was a community-driven study on how to improve the West Dallas artery. More than three years later, none of the ideas it generated have become reality. “People fear permanency,” Howard says. “With Better Block, we are able to completely innovate on a temporary level, so people can see firsthand what works and what doesn’t.” No public meetings. No talking. Just showing. And in most cases, it has worked pretty well. Later this year, Roberts and Howard will begin working with the city to implement certain aspects of the original Better Block project on Tyler Street. 

 


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