Stephen Cairns completed his undergraduate degree in anthropology and classical studies at the University of Otago. He trained in architecture at the University of Auckland, and practiced as an architect in New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific, designing the competition-winning entry for the Headquarters for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in Noumea. He subsequently undertook doctoral studies at the University of Melbourne writing a thesis on the colonial architecture in Java, with an emphasis on aesthetics and the politics of representation.
On completion of his PhD he was appointed to a Lectureship at the University of Melbourne. He took up a Senior Lectureship at the University of Edinburgh, and was appointed Professor of Architecture and Urbanism there in 2009. He served as Head of Department of Architecture, and Director of the newly founded Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. He is currently based in Singapore where he is Scientific Director of the Future Cities Laboratory.