It soars 12 stories high. It is shiny and steel. It looks, to some critics, like a flaky take-off on the Washington Monument. It is the architect's concept of a centerpiece for Fairfax County's new $83.4 million government center.

Last week, the obelisk design got the needle from the county's supervisors, who finally asked the question many residents have had all along:

What is the point of the $350,000-plus structure?

"It has been called a number of both obscene and nonobscene things," said Glenn Bowman, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations. "I think it is the most controversial part of the project."

At the Jan. 11 board meeting, the supervisors voted 6-to-3 to have the county staff search for other designs for the structure. It would be parked in front of the planned complex south of I-66 and Rte. 50 and would serve as a landmark in the booming Fair Oaks area.

Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Annandale), who brought up the matter, said the county structure's resemblance to a "mini-Washington Monument" is pretentious. "Let's face it. We're not Washington, D.C. We're Fairfax County," Bulova said later. "I think we need to have our own identity."

At a cost of between $350,000 and $450,000, the hollow structure seemed to be a waste of money to many residents, Bulova said. "You can't climb it. It's just there."

The supervisors' discussion of the obelisk quickly turned tongue-in-cheek and finally degenerated into bad puns.

"A monumental decision" was the way it was described by Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III (R-Mason), who voted to look at other options. And Supervisor Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) later insisted that he did not have an "edifice complex" because of his vote. "It just didn't seem to fit my idea for a government center," Hyland said. "It's just too much."

In such a historically rich county, the home of the nation's first president and several Civil War skirmishes, some residents and officials said the county could find a more symbolic structure.

"I can't figure out why Fairfax County needs an obelisk, especially a stainless steel one," said Wayne Rash, president of the Kings Park West Civic Association in Annandale. "We have much to remember and much to look forward to. We should look to those things to center our government around."

The proposed government complex, including the obelisk, was designed by the architectural firm RTKL Associates Inc. of Baltimore.

The 150-foot high obelisk was intended to keep the five-story government center from being dwarfed in the prime development corridor west of Fairfax City, according to Randy Gaskins, the architectural firm's project manager.

As for the obelisk's similarity to the more famous version across the Potomac, the architect replied, "I've always looked at it as an architectural element and not as being a little brother to the Washington Monument."

Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield), in whose district the new government complex will lie, expressed disappointment at the board's action. When she toured the Midwest last year, McConnell said, she passed little towns where courthouses were embellished with "gold domes, carvings, statues, all kinds of things."

She said she could live with an obelisk in Fairfax. "Here we are one of the richest counties in the nation and we're going to have just a building. I would hope we would have a feature on it that is distinctive."

McConnell was joined by Supervisors Joseph Alexander (D-Lee) and Martha V. Pennino (D-Centreville) in the vote against considering alternative designs. Pennino later said she was not particularly taken with the obelisk. She said she had hoped to negotiate the design with the developer. "I looked at it and said, 'Oh yuck, but I'll get to it later.'"