RAYMOND J. Kaskey, sculptor, is looking for a new studio in Washington. His requirements are precise and unusual: a room with a ceiling at least 30 feet high, and just enough breadth for him and a few assistants to move around as they hammer away at thin copper plates and assemble them into the shape of a giant crouching maiden with billowing robes and hair.

If this figure were magically able to stand when completed she would tower more than 50 feet. But even in her eternal kneel she will measure 27 feet from base to the tip of that ever-waving hair. She has been christened "Portlandia" and she is destined to occupy the ledge of honor atop the main entrance to the most written-about building of recent vintage--the boxy, polychrome municipal office structure that architect Michael Graves designed for the city of Portland, Oregon.

The commission to fashion this monumental, allegorical statue for Graves' controversial office building has propelled the mild-mannered and heretofore obscure Kaskey, 40, into the middle of a nationwide esthetic debate. It is a position he appears to relish, despite his gentle mien.

A stringy fellow with shoulder-length locks of hair turning to gray, Kaskey issues fighting words in a deliberate, droning voice. The message is insistent, repetitious--Kaskey is a reformed modernist, a convert to allegorical figuration.

If modern was "all about inventing yourself," as Kaskey says, then he is doing the opposite, "keeping everything everybody else does." This is his manifesto: "The more the artist loses himself in the great tradition of Western sculpture, to the point almost of anonymity, the more I like it . . . The tradition is 2,000 years old, it is part of our minds, part of the baggage we carry around in our heads. Why not use it?"

Kaskey won the Portland commission last fall in a competition that drew submissions from more than 200 artists. Like the competition for the building, the sculpture contest generated lots of ire. One artist at the last public meeting of the selection committee suggested that the proposals of the two finalists be "thrown out" because their styles had "died of old age" more than a hundred years ago. The suggestion echoed the passionate reactions of the established modernist avant-garde in Portland to Graves' Post-Modernist design for the building. In both cases the selection committees remained unmoved. Kaskey, like Graves, was given the job.

One of the curiosities of the contest was that the other finalist was Richard Savini, another relatively unknown artist from Washington. The fact that both Kaskey and Savini were conservative, figurative artists working in the city that two decades ago nurtured the resolutely abstract painters of the Washington Color School is the sort of irony that appeals to Kaskey, whose sense of these things has become finely honed.

It is the fact that modernists were his main teachers, first at Carnegie-Mellon University in his native Pittsburgh and then in post-graduate studies at the School of Architecture at Yale, that gives his judgments their bite, and makes his recollections bittersweet.

Kaskey was educated as an architect--largely, he says, as a result of a compromise with his family, which resisted his idea of becoming a painter. He can get almost Tom Wolfe-ian ("From Bauhaus to Our House") when talking about his school years, recalling, for instance, how his Bauhaus-trained teachers at Yale would go to any lengths not to use words such as "door," or "window."

"You would have to speak of 'openings,' or 'holes,' " he says with a sigh not untouched by venom, "or better yet, about 'voids.' "

Starting in 1965, Kaskey, then 22, spent a year in Europe on a Pittsburgh Plate Glass fellowship. "Mainly I stayed in Italy, and mainly in Rome," he recalls, his eyes still lighting to the names of Borromini and Bernini--the great Baroque names. "Rome is just so rich, so plastic," he says, with another long sigh. "Well, you're confronted with the grand tradition and you are not prepared for it by architecture school, where the main idea was to throw everything out and start all over again. To copy anything made before 1914 would have been laughed out of the drafting room. I was guilty of that myself, when I became a teacher."

After receiving his master's degree from Yale in 1969 Kaskey landed a job teaching design at the University of Maryland School of Architecture in College Park where, as he had done in Pittsburgh and New Haven, he continued to divide his time between architecture and sculpture. After he left the university in 1976, however, Kaskey devoted more and more of his energy to sculpture.

That was a key year in his career. Until then Kaskey's sculpture, clearly influenced by Yale luminaries such as Josef Albers and European Constructivists such as Max Bill, had been mathematical, geometrical, abstract. A large-scale leftover of that period is the concrete pyramid he designed for a courtyard adjacent to the School of Architecture building on the College Park campus.

"I think it is a reasonably successful piece but it was kind of a one-time thing," he says. "It didn't have any babies as an idea."

In retrospect Kaskey views those years as "a very slow, painful shedding of the idea of abstraction, going as far as I could with it. The search for a more particular image out of the spatial exploration led me to a dead end. What I didn't know at the time was, the image was one of classical art."

By curious coincidence, in view of what happened later, Kaskey's evolution ran parallel to that of Michael Graves, who changed course in the mid-1970s from a rigorously abstract form of architecture to a style replete with historical allusions.

Kaskey taught himself how to model the human figure, a process that was also slow but full of excitement for him. The first piece he did was a bust of his wife, Sherry, whom he had met while they were both undergraduates at Carnegie-Mellon. Later, he joined with other sculptors to share the cost of a professional model.

"I think I had a fairly well developed eye for it," he says. "It's just that I had never used it."

The Portland competition seemed a natural for Kaskey, with his background in both architecture and art, and his long struggle to unite the two in a humanistic way. "The main idea," he says, "is how to make a place for sculpture, and also make the sculpture responsive to the architecture rather than being just plopped down."

At the time, though, he was emotionally drained after having been overlooked by "the very Late Modernist jury" for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Kaskey's entry featured a figure of a GI carrying his dead buddy as a centerpiece in a garden setting.) As a result the package he sent to Portland was strong on words and short on images, very much in the manner of Maya Lin's winning Vietnam Veterans entry--an irony which does not escape him.

In any case, Kaskey did not have a whole lot of work to show the jury for the Portland sculpture--he had designed the decorative medallions and capitals for architect Robert Bell's Volta Place townhouses in Georgetown and he had done a few private commissions--but he did have a clear idea. He took his cue from Graves' original proposal for a flying, allegorical female figure above the entranceway. This huge horizontal piece looked good in drawings and on the model, but it would have greatly exceeded the city's $224,000 budget for artwork on the project.

The competition rules did not specify a figure but they strongly suggested one--they were based upon a 19th-century city seal with a figure of "Lady Commerce" at its center.

"I decided to stick with the idea of a wind-blown figure," Kaskey says. "It suggested sea breezes and seemed a good symbol for the city of Portland."

He changed the figure's posture for cost reasons and also because the compact volume would fill out the ledge above the door while providing a dramatic view for pedestrians 50 feet below. "Portlandia's" gesture--right arm extended downward, welcoming, and left arm pointing the trident heavenward--seems especially felicitous.

For the next year or so Kaskey and his assistants will be busy enlarging "Portlandia" to a full-size plaster model, and then hammering those copper sheets--the same method, he points out with a note of pride, that Frederic Auguste Bartholdi employed for the Statue of Liberty. At the moment the sculptor's biggest problem remains finding that tall, narrow space to do the work in.