THAT TORNADO-shaped sculpture-in-progress by the Whitehurst Freeway has stirred up a tornado of controversy that first sent artist and supporters into court and then to a meeting with the community.

The brouhaha began when several Foggy Bottom residents complained about their new neighbor at 27th and K streets, NW -- a 40-foot-tall inverted pyramid of steel rods hung with junked electrical appliances. The president of one company that owns a nearby building even wrote a letter to the mayor promising to arrange personally for the removal of "this unsightly sculpture of metal junk which [residents] are forced to observe every day."

The work, being assembled by sculptor Nancy Rubins and her assistants, was commissioned by the Washington Project for the Arts, which quickly rose to Rubins' defense. "It isn't junk," said WPA's Olivia Georgis. "It's really appliances that people don't use anymore. It's not dirty laundry or broken bottles. Its incoherent appearance is aggravated by the fact that it's not finished."

WPA, famous for hosting Bob Wade's cowboy boots at an outdoor exhibition space three years ago, went to the D.C. Superior Court about 10 days ago and got a temporary restraining order to keep the company from removing the sculpture. (WPA has a permit from the city allowing the sculpture to remain until Dec. 1.) WPA drew up a petition of support and collected about 100 signatures at the sculpture site. And it went to an Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) meeting a week ago to discuss the sculpture, taking along for support Howard Fox, a Hirshhorn curator and WPA board member; David Berment, a New York State developer; and Walter Hopps, former adjunct curator at the National Museum of American Art and now director of the Menil Collection in Houston and a WPA board member.

"My greatest fear," said Georgia, "and the reason we tried to mobilize support, was that people would ask us to remove it prematurely. But because there was so much support for the piece at the ANC meeting, that question never came up. People who hated it weren't there."

Said Steve Levy, chairman of that ANC: "Basically the people who called me to ask about the sculpture and when it would be removed weren't at the meeting -- or didn't answer when I called for them at the meeting."

But Levy characterized the citizens' reaction more as one of tolerance than support. About 50 people attended the meeting. "The acceptance of it doesn't necessarily mean excitement over the sculpture," he said. "There is, let's say, a large number of people who don't like the way the thing looks -- a large conglomeration of kitchen appliances, like a large junk pile turned over. Overall, people are willing to live with it."

Levy counts himself among the people who don't like the looks of the sculpture. But, he added, "I think there's a good precedent the sculpture is setting. We're recapturing a space for the community. Even if people are walking over there and saying, 'Isn't that awful?' at least we're getting some pedestrian traffic."