As a real estate marketer, Bob Rennie is an expert at getting people to line up for a chance to buy condominiums that haven’t been built yet. Yet the principal of Rennie Marketing Systems and Rennie & Associates Realty works in one of the oldest buildings in Vancouver. Ten years ago, Rennie paid $1 million for the Wing Sang Building, a Chinatown landmark constructed in 1889. He spent more than 10 times the purchase price renovating the 2,500-square-metre space into the headquarters of the Rennie Group and his own contemporary art gallery.
Rennie’s desk was one of the last works completed by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt before his death in 2007. A steel frame topped with glass, the desk features geometric forms representing mathematical equations, which was a signature of the artist. Rennie shares the six-metre-long work surface sitting side-by-side with his son, Kris, who serves as the company’s managing director. “He does all the work,” says Rennie. The artwork displayed behind the desk, Warm Broad Glow (Dark) by African-American artist Glenn Ligon, features a quote from a Gertrude Stein novel.
Rennie has collected the works of 47 artists “in depth” and more than 200 in total. The gallery only displays a fraction of the collection at any one time, with the remainder stored off-site. Most of the works grapple with themes of social injustice, race and identity. “Education and culture, that’s the bridge between the fortunate and the less fortunate,” Rennie says. “The artists and the collection really give me inspiration on the marketing side.”
Original owner Yip Sang expanded the façade twice to house his import-export business as well as his four wives and 23 children. When Chinese residents were subject to a curfew in the 1920s, a concealed passage allowed movement between the buildings after dark.
The office offers access to a roof garden. Overhead is an illuminated neon work by British artist Martin Creed. The message “Everything is going to be alright” is visible to morning commuters headed downtown.
4 WHITE CHAIRS
The four white modernist chairs in Rennie’s office are playfully modelled on a set used by Chinese ruler Mao Zedong and U.S. President Richard Nixon during their 1972 summit. The centre piece rests on the granite tabletop that Rennie and two associates shared at their previous location. “I never had my own office before,” he says.
The one room Rennie opted not to renovate was a classroom where the children of early Chinatown residents learned English and later generations learned Cantonese. Even the writing on the chalkboard is unchanged from the 1980s. The space now serves as a meeting room for staff and clients.
Rennie’s work uniform includes sneakers made by Converse and, more recently, Lanvin. “I start at 4:30, seven days a week,” he explains. “When I look down there’s something that…I just feel more relaxed.”
—Photographs by Martin Tessler