LAST week, I spent a few days in Edinburgh’s New Town. Taking a stroll in the evening, when windows were lit and the Firth of Forth beckoned in the dusk, it was possible to imagine you were in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The elegance of the tenements and crescents, the grandeur of an immaculately planned, artistically peerless quarter, is still almost as breath-taking today as when it was conceived two and a half centuries ago.

Since then, of course, the world has moved on, and architecture with it. Nowhere is this more glaringly apparent than in the capital.

Where the middle ages gave us Edinburgh Castle and the 18th century produced a masterpiece of Georgian town planning, the 21st century has offered – well, what precisely? A long-awaited shopping mall, is the answer, and a hotel so offensive Edinburghers can be seen averting their eyes as they walk eastwards along George Street.

Like the sort of pantomime hats worn by princesses Beatrice and Eugenie – most comparisons are far cruder – it rises above the RBS’s regal Georgian townhouse, giving the finger to those who thought Edinburgh deserved better. Adding to the insult, it can be seen for miles. It dominates the skyline from as far away as Ferry Road, and probably makes Fifers turn their backs.

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At a pedestrian crossing, I overheard a man in conversation with a tourist: “Edinburgh used to be such a handsome city,” he said, apologetically. And while he was not personally to blame for how the city looks, there’s certainly a lot to be sorry about.

Let’s start with the new St James Quarter mall. There was less fanfare about the Mars landing than for this addition to the city’s commercial strip. Visually, it’s undoubtedly an improvement on the grim Stasi fortress that was the old St James Centre. Beyond that, I am – to put it politely – underwhelmed. Within its airy walkways you’ll find the ubiquitous chain stores – Boots, Zara, L’Occitane, Carvela, etc – plus the revamped John Lewis.

When it’s fully occupied there will apparently be around 80 shops, plus “high-end eateries and bars”, a cinema, hotel and bowling alley.

The problem is, it’s just a mall – hardly a thrilling concept. Do we really need another one? And aren’t they yesterday’s idea? So architecturally bland it must have been designed expressly not to aggravate or alarm, it merely gathers all the most popular retail names into a single hub.

You could be in any city in the world, because there’s nothing distinctively Scottish about it. Nor is there any excitement or discovery in visiting, just convenience in not having to stretch your legs between one well-known brand and another.

In an age when the death of the high street is the retail equivalent of Dutch Elm Disease, the St James Quarter has pulled the plug out of Princes Street, sucking people to the east end of the city and leaving the rest high and dry.

HeraldScotland: St James QuarterSt James Quarter

Once one of the grandest shopping boulevards in Europe, Princes Street is looking dowdier than ever. Nothing – one hopes – can ever ruin its outlook, across Princes Street Gardens to Edinburgh Castle. Yet, with its raison d’etre fast fading as brand names are sucked into the mall’s orbit like iron filings to a magnet, it faces a serious identity crisis.

At its west end, the former House of Fraser is being glitzily renovated into the Johnny Walker Visitor Centre; at the east end, the closed doors of Jenners have yet to reopen on its transformation.

Meanwhile, in the mile between these dumbbells, shops are disappearing: some forever, others relocating to the mall. Soon, locals guess, Princes Street will become a café-culture zone, with pavement tables offering a world-class view. That’s fine, but only up to a point. In the past, its shops and emporia were the reason to visit; once they’re gone, there are only so many iced Americanos anybody can consume in a day.

But Edinburgh’s problems go deeper than the short-sighted St James Quarter. All across the centre there’s an air of neglect and confusion. Bins are overflowing, allowing seagulls to feast like kings; roads are an obstacle course, with bollards to protect cyclists, and a contagion of signs for detours, lanes, pop-up traffic lights and speed limits. There’s so much information on display, it’s not just bewildering but eye-gouging.

Equally ugly are the rustic pens erected outside pubs and restaurants along prime tourist routes, so that customers can swig al fresco. They’re gimcrack and obtrusive, not fit even for sheep. Their occupants have a faintly self-conscious air as they raise a glass, realising they’ve unwittingly become a fringe attraction.

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The mess and misery spread far and wide. An enormous modern building, in the heart of the Old Town, is swathed in scaffolding. It’s only a few years old, but already in need of substantial repair. A mile away, the New Town’s tenements require only the occasional remedy, despite centuries of exposure and use.

There’s so much to irritate that, by the time you reach the charmless Legoland that is the University of Edinburgh’s featureless modern blocks, the will to complain has almost drained away. But not completely. A version of John Betjeman’s railing against the desecration of Slough springs to mind: “Come friendly bombs, and fall on Edinburgh”.

Last century, protesters managed to avert the near catastrophe of a motorway ploughing through the city centre (Glasgow wasn’t as fortunate). The exquisite George Square, the epitome of northern Georgian building, was almost demolished, but miraculously survived.

Obviously, some of the city’s afflictions and annoyances are temporary, such as the upheaval of the tram line being extended to Leith. Eventually, that blip will prove well worth the disturbance. In a more profound sense, though, the mood of chaos feels deep rooted, as if it has been etched into the city’s soul.

There is no reassuring sense of a steady hand on the tiller, no far-sighted look-out at the helm, watching for what lies ahead. Those of us who love the city feel powerless to protect it. Such is the state of disarray, sticks of Edinburgh Rock that previously read I ♥ Auld Reekie should be inscribed with Help!

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