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Striking a Balance Between Form and Function

What makes a bridge aesthetically pleasing? Finley McNary Engineers recently asked this question of noted bridge designers and found that many engineers believe that aesthetics are inherent in the design. The consensus is that a well-thought-out bridge can make all the difference-build it right, and it'll always look good.

Three key elements where form and function meet were identified.

Location. Visualizing where a bridge will be located and making sure it will fit where it is placed are essential. A structure can be intrinsically beautiful, but if it does not fit with its surroundings, the beauty can be lost.

Proportion. An attractive bridge is one that's properly proportioned. The size and shape of a structure's components and how they complement each other help provide a definition of its purpose. "A few feet can make a huge difference," says Miguel Rosales, AIA, president of Rosales, Gottemoeller & Associates, Inc. (Brookline, MA), a transportation architecture and engineering firm. "A bridge that's beautiful is usually very light and streamlined. To do that, you have to really work on proportion."

Simplicity. Covering up a run-of-the-mill bridge with brick or hard deck to make it more attractive almost never works. If a structure is unattractive, chances are that it won't matter what you put on top of it. Bridges with a lot of added railings, tiers, and finishes can overshadow the beauty of the basic structure.

Another school of thought goes beyond the building basics. Some designers say it takes more than a good functional bridge to ensure that a bridge is attractive. "It's easy to say that aesthetics are part of a well-designed bridge structure," says Thomas Piotrowski, partner with H2L2 Architects and Planners (New York, NY), a design firm that focuses on architecture, planning, interior design, and infrastructure. "But there are requirements for different bridges, and generally aesthetics are not one of those requirements. There are crude and unimaginative ways of doing things, but usually you can find a better way."

And, some designers believe that a balance of form and function may be the best option. Rosales says, "I think aesthetics are inherent in good design, but they're not a straightforward kind of thing. It's more than just calculations-it's an artistic shaping of the bridge.

The article concludes that bridge designers who set out to design a "signature" bridge without first focusing on the basic functionality are likely to disappoint on both counts.

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