"Meanwhile in east London, lunatics decorate a building..."
On the corner of White Post Lane — directly outside Hackney Wick station — stands an atypical building, The Lord Napier. You may know it as 'that building covered in graffiti'. Forsaken for the past 24 years it is now about to become what it started out life as: a pub.
'Forsaken' might not be the right word here. Concerned locals have been whispering rumours of the Lord Napier’s potential restoration since the nearby 2012 Games were green-lit. Finally, Tower Hamlets has granted a premises licence to Electric Star Limited, behind such makeovers as The Fellowship and Star in Bellingham. ZCD Architects have joined in, and are currently working out a facelift.
But does the Lord Napier want a facelift?
Listed as a heritage asset, the building stands as a reminder of what this area once had in abundance (an artistic identity) and what it used to be (a haven for misfits). Its façade is quite literally a work of art. A continuously shifting, two-storey-high communal canvas. Every inch is covered in graffiti, announcements, politically infused posters. Doors lay barred or hidden under the latest scribbles and signs. Windows are either broken or boarded up, making it difficult to gain access (that didn't stop it from being inhabited by squatters, and being used as a rave venue in the early 2000s).
The result is one gigantic, compelling scrapbook that stands in sharp contrast with newly-constructed buildings nearby, like the Bagel Factory, which promises homeowners "unique warehouse style apartments... celebrating the industrious history of the area... set to be synonymous with the future of Hackney Wick."
Those exiting the Overground station invariably stop to take photos of The Lord Napier, not its hip neighbour.
The Lord Napier's exteriors often change overnight; one morning it’s got a pink-eared grey wolf (or is it a fox?) plastered on one of its doors, the next this has been replaced by an illustration of a Transformer set against a multicoloured halo effect. Flyers announcing upcoming gigs are pasted up for good measure.
This building is anything but boring. But it's more than something pretty to slap on your Instagram feed — it's a palimpsest of the area's past.
Having been around since the 1870s, the The Wick's past is etched all over the pub’s walls. It watched as factories swarmed the area in the late 19th century and turned it into an industrial zone. It watched as artists took over the warehouses on Fish Island, drawn by the large facilities and affordable rent, and converted them into art studios. It watched as re-developers began taking down those same old warehouses and buildings, after London was chosen to host the 2012 Summer Olympics in 2005. It watched as these were replaced with apartments, driving up rent and pricing out artists. It witnessed the wave of protests that ensued, the local outrage as Vittoria Wharf — combining art studios and workplaces — was torn down to pave way for a new crossing connecting The Wick to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
The Lord Napier itself bears traces of these protests. In 2016, Aida Wilde organised a 48-hour takeover of the building, inviting some of The Wick's local street artists — Sweet Toof, Mobstr, Dscreet, Malarky, Static — to decorate the pub’s façade. The building still carries remnants of the artistic overhaul; the mottos "Shithouse to Penthouse" and "Meanwhile in east London, lunatics decorate a building…" remain inscribed three summers later. It's a testament to the artists' act of resistance.
Wilde described the takeover as a way to celebrate and show off "the wealth of talent that had either been born and bred from here, or past through and worked in Hackney Wick over the last decade.
"I wanted the artists on there to be recognised and for them to stamp their mark and leave a legacy," Wilde says, "I didn't want us to be forgotten." She concedes that Hackney Wick has reached a point of no return in terms of gentrification. Every new or renovated building, she explains, becomes a mark of change.
"What it feels like is that they have almost started with a blank canvas as they have bulldozed down any of its charm and character and replaced everything with a uniform of beige blandness."
ZCD Architects is well aware of the Lord Napier's legacy and promises to take a "light approach", by adding a roof over the building, and a "small extension to [its] side and rear". Additional changes include amendments to the existing basement, “sympathetic refurbishment and restoration throughout”, as well access to parts of the roof.
"We know it’s got social history, but at the end of the day, everyone is happy it’s going to stay a pub, and not become a new apartment complex,” a spokesperson tells me.
But the existing artwork will probably not survive the redevelopment; ZDC's 2017 planning statement reveals the existing graffiti will be painted over, providing a "blank-canvas" to local graffiti artists who will be invited every year to decorate the façade. Wilde says this sounds "slightly patronising".
She remains sceptical, fearing that this small tribute to the pub's current exterior might not truly encompass the spirit of The Wick. "Who is the new exterior for?" she asks, "Is it to ease their presence to old locals with some sense of familiarity and ease, or is it to capitalise and beautify through street art?"
While the changes might put an end to the artistic authenticity of the Lord Napier, you can't ignore the state of near-disrepair the building currently finds itself in. No amount of spray paint or glue can mend the roof or repair the broken tiles.
Andrew Dupont and Naomi Ale, both residents in the area, welcome the redevelopment. "It remains positive as long as it keeps capturing the area and expressing the spirit of Hackney Wick," says Ale. "It's a good symbol for Hackney Wick," adds Andrew, "I think it’ll carry on being a symbol even as a pub."
Jessica Furseth, a freelance journalist whose long-held interest in the Lord Napier inspired her articles for Garage and Huck magazine, agrees. "I'll miss the ever-changing graffiti on the Lord Napier — it's a Hackney Wick landmark," she says. "But the plans to turn the Lord Napier back into a pub are respectful of both the building and the area, and that's not something we can say very often about building plans in the Wick."
Construction work is set to begin this summer. One thing is certain, The Lord Napier — abandoned or not — remains a treasured relic, a legacy to Hackney Wick's long-standing spirit.