Beginning from top left, clockwise: the old Flamsteed House, in front of it the Astrographic (round) dome, and the drum dome of Airy's altazimuth; the onion-shape dome containing the 28-inch refractor; the wooden Magnetic Observatory and a library to the right; partial view of the Lassel dome.
Science, and most especially astronomy, is made not only inside buildings but also through buildings. This is why I found a suggested research topic on the buildings of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (ROG) particularly appealing for a six-week research internship which I have undertaken at the ROG this summer.
This picture from the NMM collections, taken about 1895, strikes the eye with a rather clumsy arrangement of buildings, domes and sheds. In fact the ROG expanded within the limiting space of the hill where it stands by successive modifications and added facilities and structures. It was established in 1675 specifically to assist the enhancement of navigation by improving the knowledge of the heavens. But later it had to accommodate an increasing staff and to provide adequate space for additional functions like chronometer regulation, time signals, and meteorological and magnetic observations. In addition, it always had to respond to the growing demands of astronomical observation and measurement and to the related advancements in instrumentation.
By the mid-19th century, the most advanced astronomical observatories were planned and built as scientific houses embodying coherent and functional assemblages of instrumentation and architectural elements. The ROG was never a scientific house conceived as a whole in that sense; it was rather a house of science consisting of an evolving complex of buildings and temporary structures, in "a process as natural and simple as that of the growth of a tree", as the American astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) put it. It was perhaps not that simple, but it surely reinforces the importance of the ROG buildings, both those extant and those which remain in the historical records only. They represent scientific challenges and solutions that shaped the performance of the British national observatory and mirror general trends spanning over three centuries of the history of astronomy and its institutions.