The life of the mind at the National Humanities Center

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The National Humanities Center was founded in the 1970s as a counterpart to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and other institutions devoted to the more or less sole purpose of supporting scholarship.  A number of cities and states bid for the honor of being home to the new center, and the committee ultimately settled on Research Triangle Park.  Part of the reason was that the NHC would not have to be tied to one particular university, as it would be at most other sites – it would benefit from the nearness of the Triangle’s numerous colleges and universities without having any one as its “home” (like, say, IAS at Princeton).  North Carolina also sweetened the deal by offering various perks, as they had before in luring IBM and federal research facilities in the 1960s. (As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported in 1977, “The business and academic communities of North Carolina have welcomed the Center enthusiastically,and have been very helpful as the Center has settled into its new home. This support has been material as well as moral, and has included the donation of a site for the Center’s building and funds to finance its construction.”)

NHC was something different, though.  Not only did it bring a burnish of sophisticated intellectualism to a park that was, in the end, still basically an industrial park with really good branding.  Like the Research Triangle Institute before it, but even more so, the NHC did not produce anything in particular – scientists at IBM or Burroughs Wellcome might spend their days engaged in intellectual work, but somewhere along the chain, something was made – a microchip or a pill, which might be manufactured elsewhere. NHC was important to RTP’s image because it was purely about the life of the mind, with few connections, if any, to a material economy — except, perhaps, in the books or journal articles that fellows of the Center, mostly professors at colleges across the world, might write after spending a semester or two in RTP.  It was the idea of the idea economy in its purest form.

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The architecture of NHC’s bright, white, airy structure mirrored, in at least some ways, the futurism of Burroughs-Wellcome’s headquarters (designed in the early 1970s by celebrated modernist Paul Rudolph, and later renamed the Elion-Hitchings building).  It is a space designed for thought, for intellectual labor.  Its modest offices have the feeling of monastic cloisters or grad student carrels, clearly modeled on the spatial layout of a university department.  There is abundant light – itself a symbol of knowledge, enlightenment – and what President Robert Newman describes as a “seamless” (or perhaps seemingly seamless) interface with the piney woods surrounding it.

In this way, NHC continues the original assumption that underlay RTP – that intellectual work is fostered by pastoral serenity, divorced from the truck and barter of the ordinary world. It is also a deeply American notion, reaching back to Thoreau thinking deep thoughts at Walden or possibly even the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer, whose property ownership permitted space and an independent will unfettered by the impositions of others. As JB Jackson had noted, a green lawn has been a deep, if often implicit, aspiration of Europeans since they transplanted themselves to a new continent and began carving up a vast landscape into farms, cities, and eventually sprawling suburbs – much like RTP itself.

Indeed, whereas today theorists such as Richard Florida and Charles Landry see innovation as emerging from the stimulation of people interacting in denser urban environments (the “creative city”), RTP was premised on the idea of separating various economic and intellectual activities and creating a contemplative environment. That did not mean that the park (or NHC) lacked a theory of social interaction.  After all, the park was all about bringing smart people together in one place, or a series of interconnected spaces, while providing access to the pleasures of cultural opportunities made possible by nearby colleges and universities. And NHC itself was quite explicitly meant to bring scholars together in one space, conducive to intellectual cross-pollination – freed from teaching responsibilities, intellectuals could work in blissful isolation, but they also encountered each other at talks and seminars and, most important, in the open dining area that sits at the Center’s core.  (As first director Charles Frankel put it early on, the Center was meant “to encourage advanced studies in the humanities, to bring humanistic scholars together with scholars in other disciplines and with people in various fields of public life, and to enhance the usefulness and influence of the humanities in the American civic process.”) They may be separated by broad lawns and security checkpoints from computer scientists and chemists nearby, but the NHC was still designed to bring bright minds together in a kind of ethereal, immaterial space – creative thought and intellectual interchange occurring in a building where was nearly unmediated by architecture (or at least appeared to be so).

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A spiral staircase stretches through the wide open space the Center’s main common area, perhaps evoking the helix form of DNA, information encoded in its most microscopic form.  However, the steps reach to the boiler room and other utilitarian parts of the building’s physical plant, and the designer of the space apparently did not consider how very impractical it would be to carry tools and other heavy items up and down a narrow, winding staircase.

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Then there is the RJR Commons: a common space paid for by a company that loves to privatize profit and socialize risk by fighting against sensible science on the dangers of tobacco as well as climate change.  Indeed, North Carolina’s postindustrial future was brought to it by the state’s carcinogenic past – much as RJ Reynolds rebranded itself as Altria, a blandly anonymous purveyor of tobacco, wine, and financial services. (Fear not, though – every thing in Winston-Salem is still named after various Reynoldses.)

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The W.E.B. DuBois ornament is an excellent touch

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The intellectual food court

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Long hallways of red carpet and white space, with sightlines to the green exterior

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The patio has seen more auspicious days

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The workplace of the future in miniature

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