Richard Murphy said Edinburgh had become riddled with “incredibly bland” buildings designed to ape or mimic its historic landscape, which had been allowed to spread around the city like cancer.
The award-winning Edinburgh architect, whose vision for a new 11-storey home for the Filmhouse has had a mixed reception, claims the city suffers from a lack of “forward-thinking, planning and leadership” which have made it more difficult to get contemporary architecture approved.
He was speaking in an online debate weeks before plans are due to be lodged for the 121 ft tall Filmhouse building - which would be higher than the Sheraton Grand Hotel and the Usher Hall.
Mr Murphy said Edinburgh was still suffering from the legacy of “terrible” architecture approved decades ago.
He added: “The pendulum has backwards and forwards rather violently in Edinburgh.“Some terrible things happened here in the 1960s and 1970s, there is no question about it, both in the city centre and on the edge of the city.
"Throughout Britain, and in extremis in Edinburgh, there was a collapse in confidence in architecture and architects and we became a branch of the criminal classes - the people who have spoiled everything, basically.
"I remember Oliver Barratt, who used to run the Cockburn Association, once said that when building on Castle Terrace was finished that Edinburgh would shortly be finished. By a strange quirk of the English language, finished means two things - it means dead as well as complete.
“We have to find ways of the city continuing and yet not disrupting what we enjoy about history.
“That is the big debate in Edinburgh. My honest opinion is that at the moment the pendulum has swung back and it is much more difficult to get new architecture past the planning committee. There is a general conservatism. That's my experience.”
Mr Murphy, who was brought up in Manchester, said he wanted Edinburgh to have the kind of “hunger for the future” that his native city had in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocity in 1996.
Sir Howard Bernstein, who was appointed council chief executive two years later, was credited with its transformation through its hosting of the Commonwealth Games, the creation of the City of Manchester Stadium, and developments like Spinningfields, NOMA and First Street.
Mr Murphy said: “When I was 18 years old I left the sad town of Manchester. After the IRA bomb went off they had a census and discovered there were 87 people living in Manchester. It was deserted at night. A great chief executive was appointed and really got the place going.
“They were hungry for change and to self-improve and have a serious incentive to have a better Manchester. It is unrecognisable now.
“I’d like to think that Edinburgh would have that hunger for the future, to do new things and take risks, rather than just standing still, so that people come here not just for the history, but contemporary things as well.”
Mr Murphy said has previously declared that the proposed new Filmhouse – which would also create a new home for the Edinburgh International Film Festival – would be a match for any of the city’s great cultural buildings.
Speaking in the online debate, he said that Edinburgh did not have “world-beating or extraordinary” buildings which could compete with those found in Glasgow.
He added: “I learned a lesson a long time ago. You can't do good buildings without a good client. I would expand that by saying you can't do good cities without good leadership. That leadership is either political or at the head of the planning department. I don't think we have either at the moment.
“We lack clear forward-thinking planning and leadership and ambition, in the public-sector in particular. That's linked to our catastrophic system of how we procure hospitals, schools and other public buildings. We also need private clients to aim high.
“We do have a unique skyline. That is not to say it is set in aspic for all-time and we can’t have new buildings that pierce the skyline if they’re appropriate and of architectural quality. There are some people who have a mentality that the skyline should never, ever be changed - I don’t subscribe to that at all.
“The problem is how do you match the quality of what you have in Edinburgh with new work. You have to strive to make the new work of the highest quality.
“The biggest problem with history is that you either mimic it, ape it or pretend you are not there. It's a creeping disease that spreads over the city like cancer. You sometimes whole streets full of incredibly bland buildings - I can them stealth projects - which are trying not to be there or draw attention to themselves. I just find that too depressing to even describe.”
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