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Bridges that beautify. Miyoko Ohno's structures enhance their surroundings

WHEN motorists zip along past the gleaming suspension cables of the Yokohama Bay Bridge, they will be looking at the work of a Japanese interior decorator turned bridge designer. Miyoko Ohno -- who heads her own company with five women associates -- is in all probability Japan's only woman bridge designer.

Miss Ohno's first bridge design won the important Tanaka Prize, the only time a footbridge has taken this award; and since then she has been much in demand. Exhibitions of her bridge designs have shown the scope of her work over the past 10 years. Most recently, she netted the prestigious assignment as a planner/consultant helping to design the arresting power-line and cable system of the Yokohama Bay Bridge, still under construction.

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Most of the work she and her company put out is in small footbridges, though; and, in this city of innumerable bridges, that work has come to stand out.

``Today, when most bridges are designed by civil engineers,'' comments Riki Watanabe, a doyen of Japanese design and a member of the Japan Design Committee, ``those designed by M&M Design studio [Miss Ohno's company] have been attracting great attention. These bridges show consideration for the feelings of the people who use them. These women designers have humanized that huge structure called the bridge.''

``We work with very many consultants, but her work is the best,'' adds Tsutomu Komura, an official spokesman for Tokyo's Metropolitan Expressway Public Corporation, which oversees the region's bridge building. ``There are many consultants who know about structural analysis, but very few are concerned with aesthetics.''

Aesthetics is what concerns Miyoko Ohno most.

``From start to finish,'' she remarked during an interview at the International Federation of Interior Designers/Architects here, ``I am totally concerned with the aesthetics of a bridge, how it looks from the outside and feels from the inside, how it meets the needs of people, and how suitable it is for its surroundings.''

After graduating from the Art Academy in Tokyo with a degree in interior design, Miss Ohno -- who wears little makeup, dresses simply, and speaks softly -- began her career as an interior designer for homes, offices, and hospitals. While designing public spaces for hospitals for the elderly, she realized that the important elements of the hallways were the floor, the wall, the windows, the rails, the signs, and the lighting.

When she first turned her attention to bridges a decade ago, she concluded that they were often a neglected part of the living environment, considered chiefly for their function or economy, not for their attractive appearance.

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``Dreary-looking bridges,'' she recalls, ``often joined dreary-looking streets, stations, and subways, and I realized then that the quality of our urban exterior had become a general social problem. I also observed that, if possible, people would avoid walking over an ugly bridge.''

Her own modern style is in contrast to what she terms ``the awkward-looking bridges of the past,'' especially those overdecorated, neo-classical European styles that she feels look so out of place in Japan. She says she would rather design bridges that are ``simple, yet beautiful, bright and fitting with our time.''

Today, Ohno declares hopefully, city planners, municipal groups, and public organizations that determine such issues are more often deciding on attractive bridges that will enhance the whole city plan.

When she designs footbridges, she works with city planners. She consults with civil engineers, and it is engineers who carry through the construction of her designs. Footbridges, she says, are to connect people to places. They are routes, and they must be well lighted and pleasing to the eye. The design and texture of the floor are important. The material used must be neither too smooth nor too rough. The design of the floor can offer pleasant visual patterns, but be a means of directing and assisting pedestrians.

``If the bridge is not balanced with the surroundings, then it cannot be beautiful,'' she maintains. ``Balance is beautiful.''

If she designs a bridge at a school, she says, ``I think of the children and strive not only to design a bridge with built-in safety factors but one that is happy and charming and that children can think of as a special space.''

If she designs a pedestrian bridge to a railroad station, she thinks of the hundreds of people who must pass each other comfortably each day on the bridge. ``So I plan zones for those who move at different speeds. I provide a zone for those who walk briskly and those who walk slowly and for those who are handicapped, and I make places for those who want to stop and rest occasionally. I also provide white lines so people with vision problems can more easily find their way.''

Some former clients sometimes come to her for help with their homes. ``I like that,'' she says, ``because doing interior design keeps me close to people and their needs.''

The same principles apply in interior design as in bridge design, she insists. She still thinks in terms of making a given space more functional, comfortable, and safe for human beings. And, just as in interior design, she considers the lines, proportions, textures, and patterns that will bring the most aesthetic beauty to her bridges.

``Now,'' she says, ``I may be working with steel and concrete instead of fabrics and furnishings, but getting the mental image of the completed space, and then seeing it through, remains paramount in either case. And just as in a home, a bridge always involves space planning. This includes making the ends of the bridge attractive as well as the landscaping around the bridge.

``Once a bridge is constructed,'' she adds, ``it exists for many years, so it should be beautiful.''

She confesses to being an inveterate ``bridge tourist,'' because ``if you see only photos of bridges, you can't see the size or get the feeling of why it is beautiful.'' She says that she reads lots of books on new technologies, but that looking, and learning from what she sees, is a constant nourishment to her work.

After the interview, she sets off resolutely, map in hand, to study the bridges of Paris. Additional reporting for this article was done by Sarah Brickman, a free-lance writer living in Japan.

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