Following on from his reflections on the "theoretical university", Helmut Schelsky had been developing ideas for a new type of research center dedicated to "higher studies" since 1963. The decision of North Rhine-Westphalia to establish a new state-run university in the East Westphalia region and to entrust Schelsky with the development of its conceptual design enabled him to pursue his plans for the Center.
In September 1966, Schelsky drew up an extremely precise list of the spaces required for this new Center for Interdisciplinary Research. He proposed a strictly functional subdivision of the requirements for science, administration/management, housing and "others".
A sufficiently large library, various discussion and lecture rooms as well as several other functional rooms, including a dining room for 80 people, a sports room and an indoor swimming pool, should complement the self-contained Center. These ideas have proven to be sustainable: To this day, most of Schelsky's initally projected spaces are similarly realised and used.
Helmut Schelsky modeled the first German Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) following the pioneering institutes in Princeton and Stanford. The most decisive difference between most IAS and ZiF was the support of research groups working together on interdisciplinary topics, not individual researchers. To date, this is ZiF's destinctive and special feature.
For the first four years ZiF operated out of Rheda Castle, 30 km from Bielefeld. At Rheda Castle, ZiF began its work with shorter conferences, a format that continues to exist today as the "Workshops" funding format.
ZiF was designed by the architects Stephan Legge and Ursula Legge-Suwelack. They presented their concept in February 1970; a draft which came very close to the later realised ground plan. The topping-out ceremony was celebrated in March 1972, and the building was officially opened in May 1973.
The architectural style of ZiF can be assigned to the era of Brutalism. "New Brutalism was first mentioned in an architectural journal in 1953. In 1955, the architectural historian Reyner Banham took it up to characterise the architecture of a new direction [...]. Naked, honest, unrefined, these were the attributes of the young avant-garde, in Banham's eyes the first fundamental redefinition of building after the furious awakening of modern architecture in the early 1920s." (own translation, quoted from Oliver Elser: "70 Jahre Brutalismus", in: Neue Gesellschaft. Frankfurter Hefte 09/2020.)
In 1974/1975, ZiF's first Research Groups took up their work. Since then, ZiF has hosted Research Groups on a variety of interdisciplinary topics. To name a few: "Perception and Action", led by Wolfgang Prinz, Herbert Heuer, Odmar Neumann and Andries Frans Sanders (1984/1985), "Game Theory in the Behavioural Sciences", led by Reinhard Selten (1987/1988), "Prerational Intelligence", led by Holk Cruse and Helge Ritter (1993/1994) and "Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines", led by Ipke Wachsmuth and Günther Knoblich (2005/2006).
In 2022, ZiF redesigned its funding formats with a shift towards more flexible groups and a shorter duration. The central funding scheme now is the call for "Research in Groups", with its three different formats "Visiting Group", "Resident Group" and "Long-Term Group". They continue the successful formats "Research Groups" and "Cooperation Groups" in changing times in Academia.
Over the years, ZiF Research Groups brought more than 3,000 international researchers to ZiF, including Nobel Prize winners Reinhard Selten, Elinor Ostrom, John C. Harsanyi and Roger Myerson.
The sociologist Norbert Elias lived and worked at ZiF from 1978 to 1984, as the only permanent fellow so far. ZiF created its Norbert Elias Fellowships for African researchers in his name and efforts.
Elinor Ostrom, political scientist and economist (1933-2012), accompanied her husband to ZiF in 1987/88. According to Elinor, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, her research was decisively influenced during her time at ZiF. The Elinor Ostrom Fellowships, as an offer to partners of Resident Group Fellows, were designed in her name.
The support of Art and Science and the importance of adding different perspectives to a scientific conversation was recognized by ZiF quite early.
The first art exhibition at ZiF took place in 1976. To this date, ZiF realises regular art exhibitions and the Artist in Residence Programme, established in 2012.
"Das Junge ZiF" is ZiF's own postdoc network. Early career researchers are given a platform to practise and advance interdisciplinary discourse in the spirit of peer mentoring. The fellows meet at ZiF three times a year to discuss a self-chosen subject and exchange ideas about their individual research interests. In addition, the Fellows can organise interdisciplinary workshops. The Fellowships have a duration of four years and are awarded after an open application procedure with calls every other year.
The 50 year anniversary of ZiF was a huge celebration: It involved an anniversary party, a video with contributions from ZiF 'alumni', friends and supporters, as well as the publication "50 Years / 50 Objects".
In the book, history is not presented as a linear narrative or a finely-wrought structural analysis, but through an exemplary flash of signifiers. To achieve that, ZiF’s archives and spaces were searched – including its immediate outdoor surroundings – and 50 objects were selected: relics from the 1970s as well as photos and texts from all five decades; the premises, websites, and even, in one case, sound waves.
To enhance the plurality of perspectives united in research groups, ZiF offers two Norbert Elias Fellowships per Resident Group to African researchers to participate in ZiF Resident (former: Research) Groups. Successful applicants will become Fellows of one of the Resident Groups and live and work at ZiF for up to six months.