Know it All: Why Is the Permanent Building Full of Computer Servers?

It’s one of downtown’s most beautiful buildings—and the internet lives there.

I used to dread the day my daughter would be old enough to ask me the big, tough question that all kids inevitably pose: How does the internet work? The best answer I had prepared was “sorcery and electricity.” This is admittedly not as helpful as you might expect from someone who took a third-level university course called “Communications Technology” and once owned a book from the Scholastic Book Fair titled Surf’s Up! A Kids’ Guide to the World Wide Web.

But I dread that day no longer. Now I can just take her downtown to see the internet for herself, because that’s where it lives—in Vancouver’s most beautiful house, no less.

Well, technically, Vancouver’s most beautiful former bank. The Permanent Building, as it’s known, was first built in 1907 on Pender Street as an office for the B.C. Permanent and Loan Company, before being taken over by the Bank of Canada in ’35. More recently, it started operating as an events venue—with neo-classical design details that make a beautiful backdrop for weddings or launch parties for new flavours of vape juice (ooh, blue razzcumber!). You may also recognize it from its scene-stealing role as Veronica Lodge’s apartment building on Riverdale. But, like many of us in the arts, the Permanent would pivot to a tech career: in 2022, it became the headquarters of the Internet Archive of Canada. (Though it still is an events venue and hosts pop-ups like Pretend Wine Bar, even with all this new responsibility.)

Internet Archive is a nonprofit founded by Brewster Kahle, a rare rich tech guy who seems to care about other people and has not once threatened to fight Mark Zuckerberg. His dream is to build a free digital archive of websites and cultural artifacts, and he has already hoarded 835 billion web pages, 44 million books and 2.6 million TV news programs. (If you fall asleep to news bloopers every night, chances are you’ve got Kahle to thank. God’s work.) It’s a digital library dedicated to capturing the ephemeral and to creating information accessibility: “Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge,” says the website. It’s a noble, honourable goal, if you ignore the fact that one of the web pages that’s been archived is the 2gether fan site I made on GeoCities in 2001.

Storing all of this data requires physical resources, including powerful servers—which, as I understand it, are sort of like oversized refrigerators that the internet’s brain is stuffed into. (Sorry to get technical there! In layman’s terms, big box go beep boop.) These servers house more than 145 petabytes of info, a number so big it sounds like a type of dinosaur. But you can’t just leave those servers out in the backyard like your friend’s mean stepdad who insists his German shepherd is an “outdoor dog.” They’ll get wet and all the internet will leak out! No, the servers need to be stored inside.

Kahle bought the Permanent Building because it resembles the San Francisco headquarters of the Internet Archive (maybe #twinning is also part of the Archive’s mandate). Apparently, the building will also be used to house meetings, parties and lectures in the future, so perhaps the Internet Archive does need more square footage than the average Vancouver renter. But if you’re thinking this elegant heritage building is awfully fancy to be used as a storage locker, then shame on you. Who says a computer server can’t enjoy a stained-glass atrium or restored tile mosaic?! That whirring, buzzing electrical box is filled with more knowledge than any soft and finite human brain—surely it has access to data that explains how pretty crown mouldings are. And if it doesn’t, that’s something I can confidently articulate when I swing by to drop off my daughter.

an illustration of a man trying to close the doors of an ornate classical building because file folders are pouring out. (The file folders are styled to look like the icon used on computer desktops for storage.)
By Byron Eggenschweiler