The Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts is as yet hardly more than an overwhelming architectural void, preempting half the National Gallery's East Building.

The challenge is to fill this void not just with people and papers, but also with the spirit of scholarship. The arts need, as Walter Gropius once put it, not research so much as search.We need new insights.

A tough job. But Henry A. Millon, the center's recently appointed professor-in-charge, might be the man to accomplish it.

The center, which will officially open this fall, is both part of the National Gallery of Art and distinct from it. It has its own independent board of advisers, but is housed in the imposing new gallery building along with curatorial and administrative offices, archives and a library for 75,000 volumes.

From inside the great museum hall with its space frame roof, its trees, its Calder mobile and Miro tapestry, one is hardly aware of this service section of the building. (In plan this is the other half of architect I. M. Pei's bisected trapezoid.)

Although closed to the general public, the service section, too, is breathtakingly monumental, but in a cold sort of way. The offices are arranged along eight corridor shelves from which one gets an acrophobic view of the reading room on the ground level. Beyond a glass wall is a view of the Capitol.

All this makes an exciting setting for a Washington mystery movie and probably good administrative offices as well. But it is hard to imagine art historians at work here. One associates centers of art historical study with musty Italian or Italianate palaces such as house the Hertziana in Rome.

But then, talking to Millon, one gets the impression that traditional art history of the kind that generally takes place in these musty palaces -- congested with books, documents and scholars with magnifying glasses poring over photographs of paintings to detect who might have influenced whom -- is not what this new Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts will be all about.

The concept emerged 10 years ago in the minds of J. Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery, and Paul Mellon, its president. They felt, first of all, that young scholars together with the gallery's curators should be given the means and tools to tap what Brown called "the richest and least used resources in the arts of any city in the world" -- the Library of Congress, the universities in this area and such institutions as Brookings, Dumbarton Oaks, the Smithsonian, the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran.

A very select advisory board of internationally renowned art scholars, of which Millon was a member and which elected him the first Professor-in-Charge, has since further defined these aims. The members of this board include Jean Sutherland Boggs, who now heds the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Marvin J. Eisenberg of the University of Michigan; William Loerke of Dumbarton Oaks; and Carter Brown.

Millon first studied architecture at Tulane and Harvard and has subsequently become one of the country's leading architecture historians. He directed the American Academy in Rome for several years and is now teaching at M.I.T. until he assumes his new duties in fall.

Millon is not only interested in the history of art, but in art theory and art criticism as well.

The center, under his direction, will concern itself with the interaction of art and society. The concern includes architecture and city planning. One of the books Millon has written or edited is entitled "Art and Architecture in the Service of Politics."

This focus is broad. The first group of visiting scholars, for instance, are working in fields as diverse as German Expressionism, the influence of Claude Lorrain on 19th-century American landscape painting, the image of the peasant in the art of the middle ages and ancient Greek city planning in Sicily. "It is amazing how much can be learned from Greek sewers and water mains," said Millon.

The scholarships as well as the research resources, such as a computerized bibliography, are as generous as funds permit and at present the funds come from the Mellon, Kress, Chester Dale and other foundations.

As in most such institutions, the center is not only interested in the individual research of its scholars, who are usually appointed for a year, but also in the meeting of kindred spirits, the sparking of interests and insights in spontaneous encounters as well as structured discussions.

"An important part of the center is its extension into the Washington area through public lectures and small colloquia," Millon said.

"We hope to extend the study of art history, art theory and art criticism into areas they have not included before -- the politics, the economics, the aspirations of people which have shaped art and which art has help shape in turn," Millon said.

"We hope to show the relatedness of art and life," Millon said.

"We cannot not discuss the political meaning of art," he added. "And we cannot have a meaningful center for the study of art and architecture without taking a critical look at where we are now."

If Millon succeeds with these aims -- which are not for immediate effect, but a matter of slow evolution -- the center may help bring contemporary art and architecture out of its abstract isolation back into the mainstream of everyday life.