Younger son of James Playfair, he was a pupil of William Stark, and later worked in the offices of ‘Wyatt and Smirke’ (probably Benjamin Dean and Robert, respectively) before returning to Scotland (1818) to plan the Calton Hill Estate, Edinburgh, where he built (from 1821) Blenheim Place, Brunswick Street, Brunton Place, Carlton Terrace, Elm Row, Hillside Crescent, Leopold Place, Montgomery Street, Regent Terrace, Royal Terrace, and Windsor Street. From 1820 he also designed Royal Circus, Circus Place, and Circus Gardens (1821–3).
For the next three decades, with Burn and Gillespie Graham, he was a leading architect in Scotland and gave Edinburgh some of its finest buildings. These include the completion (1817–26) of Edinburgh University (begun (1789–93) to designs by Robert and James Adam), the splendid Greek Revival (with slight Egyptianesque touches) Royal Institution (1822–35—now Royal Scottish Academy), the unfinished Greek Doric National Monument, Calton Hill, based on the Parthenon (1824–9—with C. R. Cockerell), the Surgeons' Hall, Nicolson Street (1830–2), the Greek Revival Dugald Stewart Monument, Calton Hill (1831—based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens), the Jacobethan Donaldson's Hospital (1842–54), the scenographic Gothic Free Church College (1846–50), and the Neo-Classical National Gallery of Scotland (1850–7). He also designed a number of monuments, including the pyramidal Rutherfurd Tomb (c.1852) and his own tomb (c.1857), both in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh. Many of his drawings survive in Edinburgh University Library.
Colvin (1995);Crook (1972 a);A. Fraser (1989);Gifford, McWilliam, & Walker (1984);Glendinning et al. (1996);Gow (1984);Macaulay (1975);Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);Youngson (1966)