360 video tour of William Playfair's Edinburgh

Playfair was the man who made it his mission to transform Georgian Edinburgh into Modern Athens, but success came at a heavy price. William Henry Playfair’s career began in emphatic fashion.

Aged 27 he won the competition to complete Robert Adam’s University Old College, and within just a few short years the young architect was charged with overseeing the development of large swathes of Edinburgh’s eastern New Town.

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By the time he reached middle age, Playfair had emerged as one of the leading architects of the Greek Revival movement having designed a number of Edinburgh’s most celebrated public buildings in this style, including Surgeon’s Hall, the City Observatory, and the galleries on the Mound. His ambitious full-scale replica of the Parthenon located atop Calton Hill in 1824 was famously never completed due to an embarrasing lack of funds, dooming the neoclassical structure to be forever dubbed ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’.

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Despite this failure, Playfair’s reputation continued to flourish and his buildings would consolidate Edinburgh’s reputation as the ‘Athens of the North’. However, the architect was so devoted that he quite literally worked himself into an early grave, Chief Curator Emeritus of the National Trust for Scotland Ian Gow explains: “He was the type of man who would tackle several projects at once, labouring on despite suffering from frequent bouts of poor health and a stroke which left him crippled down one side.

Playfair was a complex man, who worked endlessly in a bid to forge his legacy, sacrificing his life for his career: “He had few close friends, never married, left no heirs and admitted while he was alive that he had little time to ‘woo’. “His sole companion in later years was a dog named Suba, who had to be sent aways to rusticate as she became excessively fat.” Only during the design of Donaldson’s College when things weren’t going so well did he ever consider taking a step back: ‘Better freedom and porridge and milk than slavery with venison and claret’, Playfair once claimed – though he doesn’t appear to have practiced what he preached.

In Ian Gow’s view, Playfair’s incredible legacy must not be forgotten: “What makes Playfair remarkable is simply the architecture of Modern Athens that he was responsible for; all these extraordinary public buildings which gave the city that name. “He must be remembered as the architect of Modern Athens than merely as an architect of the Greek Revival.”

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