In his discussion of the suicide fence on the Duke Ellington Bridge {"The Case Against Fences on the Ellington Bridge," July 4}, Ben Forgey quotes Mayor Barry as saying, "Life is more important than aesthetics." But civic art is more important than the mayor suggests; it is also important to discourage suicide. These are not conflicting objectives.

The history of design is partly a story of functional requirements turned into aesthetic opportunities. The joint between column and beam is a tricky technical and aesthetic problem; Greek designers turned one solution into the focus of an architectural style that persists after three millenniums. Long after battlements lost their threatening purpose, they continue to adorn the skyline of "Gothic" mansions. Iron fences originally designed to protect private enclaves still do that, while providing decorative boundaries; the spikes on the balusters are ornamental but unattractive to trespassers.

There is a related but more important reason for paying attention to aesthetics. Our actions are shot through with symbolism, they speak a mute language. The way we dress, the way we comb our hair, the cars we drive, the homes we live in, the cities we cherish (or defile) all tell us and our friends what we think of ourselves and our society.

Civic art tells us what our society thinks about our cities. Washington's Metrorail stations, among the great public works of this century, provide both transportation and an assertion about our nation's capital; neither the Metro stations nor the cars are trashed.

When the city government trashes the city (and that is what government did when it built that fence), its citizens will get the message and act accordingly.

The proper course of action is easy to identify and to implement. There are elegant, classical models of protective fencing that would complement the bridge. Better yet, the city could honor Duke Ellington by commissioning an artist in iron, such as Albert Paley or Joel Schwartz, to design a new fence that would better discourage suicide while embellishing the Duke Ellington Bridge. JOSEPH PASSONNEAU Washington

It is not a debate between "esthetes" and "humanitarians," Post architectural writer Benjamin Forgey asserts in his July 4 article -- and he then demonstrates that it is exactly what the debate is all about.

"Awful" looking and "cagelike" are just two of the many purple adjectives used to describe the safety fences by Mr. Forgey, who calls poetically for their removal in the interest of aesthetics, which can "elevate the spirit, make people feel better and make them momentarily aware of the joys of living."

Those words are bitter gall to the relatives and friends of the many persons who have died or been injured there from suicide, crime, accident and vandalism. Few of us who were born and raised here do not know of someone, as I do, whose life ended prematurely in tragedy there.

As Judge Wertheim wrote in his opinion of March 27:

"During the period 1979 through 1985, there were a total of 24 suicides from the bridge, representing more than half of all suicides from approximately 330 bridges in the District of Columbia and about 4 to 5 percent of all suicides in the District."

True aesthetic enjoyment of anything requires sensitivity to its history and association. Is it possible to enjoy the view from our highest bridge without awareness of the deaths that have occurred there and the deaths that would occur if the fences were removed? How aesthetic is the view from the bridge when the ambulances arrive?

In the 17 months since the safety fences were completed at the Ellington Bridge, there has been one suicide compared with nine in the preceding 17 months. To remove the fences in the face of that record, as Mr. Forgey and others advocate for esthetic reasons and because suicides elsewhere in the District from all causes rose in 1986, would be like removing effective traffic controls at a previously unmarked intersection where many persons had been killed in the past just because overall traffic fatalities had risen and the controls were unsightly.

This is an issue of community priorities. Aesthetic considerations are important factors, but not absolutes. In this case the elementary requirements of public safety are clearly overriding.

Mayor Barry made a wide and compassionate decision to have the Ellington Bridge safety fences constructed. I urge him to stand by that decision now.

ALVA CLARKE MILIAN Washington