More than any other architect, Playfair was the man who earned Edinburgh its label, "the Athens of the North". His classical buildings, many on dramatic sites, adorn the city, and lend the physical environment a stature and dignity that is unique in Britain. Playfair was the leading influence in the shaping of Edinburgh's architectural soul.
He was born in London, the son of the architect James Playfair, and as a boy came to live in Edinburgh with an uncle, Professor John Playfair. On qualifying as an architect, Playfair built a considerable private practice in Edinburgh before designing, in 1820, Royal Terrace, Carlton Terrace and Regent Terrace, in the New Town. His most important works include the Royal Scottish Academy, the National Gallery of Scotland, New College and Assembly Hall, the Royal College of Surgeons, Donaldson's Hospital, Advocates' Library and the National Monument on Calton Hill. He also enlarged the Old College of Edinburgh University following the death of Robert Adam.