A Burglar's Guide to the City

Book cover image

The main premise of this book is very simple: There is no burglary without architecture. This is pretty obvious, keeping in mind the meaning of burglary, breaking into an enclosed space with the purpose of stealing something, but the repercussions of this dependency, and how it unfolds in real life, are surprisingly intricate and interesting. Manaugh argues that, due to the alternative aims of burglars (and also of the police, who have to take on their viewpoint to catch them), they have a different way of viewing architecture (which should be taken in a very general sense, including the whole city). Those of us who use the provided means to access the living and storage spaces can be said to live in a two-dimensional version of the city, whereas burglars are living in what the author considers a three-dimensional version, “operating with a fundamentally different spatial sense of how architecture should work, and how one room could be connected to another”. What this exactly means is detailed around stories of famous burglary cases, the police officers who went after them, and how the city aided the one or the other in their respective pursuits. The stories (or themes) are not directly related to each other, but illuminate different aspects of how the city is navigated, observed and manipulated differently by people who do not feel themselves obliged to obey rules which are for us pretty much part of the city.

The first story is that of George Leonidas Leslie, an architect who moved to New York, and put his architectural skills to use in creating duplicates of banks, educating his henchmen in navigating them, and emptying the vaults of these banks. He combined his knowledge of architecture and his social standing to gather information about buildings by simply asking for it in social gatherings. This information was then put to use in emptying the biggest vaults of New York City. Leslie was a detail-oriented perfectionist who paid attention to even the location of furniture, to avoid his colleagues getting tripped up while at work. He still could not avoid getting betrayed and murdered by one of his own team.

The rest of the book is different from the story of Leslie, in that it is based on contemporary events and characters. Manaugh interviewed people from different sides of the burglary game, actual burglars and members of the police force, about their work and famous cases. An extensive section deals with burglary in one of world’s most idiosyncratic cities, Los Angeles. Following the helicopter patrols that aid the police on the ground, and talking to experienced detectives who had to follow burglars above and below the ground, Maraugh paints a picture of LA as a sprawl to which humans have tried to apply a consistent logic, but could not achieve complete coverage. Due to the huge surface area of LA, the police relies on helicopter patrols that follow suspects from the air, and coordinate the forces on the ground. This job is made more difficult by the question of how to direct the people who can’t see the city from the air. The police have come up with clever numbering schemes, and also rely on advanced imaging tools, but burglars again and again find a way around these.

Manaugh also interviews experienced detectives on how LA’s architecture contributes to burglaries. LA being a city relying on automobile traffic, those places that offer easy getaway opportunities are the most frequently robbed. These opportunities are not present only above the ground, however: One legendary group of robbers named the “hole in the ground gang” used the fact that LA is built on a network of now submerged creeks and rivers. They built elaborate tunnels from two of these into the vaults of major banks. These tunnels were wide enough to drive small jeeps through, with which they transported their spoils.

One theme that keeps on popping up in parallel to architecture is the role data and surveillance play in break-ins and law enforcement. On p.79, for example, in the contexts of master keys and plans, Manaugh writes of a Korean high-tech city. The details of the technical infrastructure for this city and all access codes are stored in a safe deposit box somewhere. This data could be used to “reboot” the city in case the systems dies, but also to burglarize it. Another example is how detailed knowledge the fire ordenance can enable one to figure out, relatively easily, where the bigger flats are, which fire exits are unlocked, and what the best exit routes are, by just looking at the building. The funniest instance of surveillance is the case of the burglar who, after breaking out of jail, set himself up in a small enclosure in a Toys R Us branch, hidden behind the bicycle shelves. He created a network of surveillance using baby cameras to observe the daily routines of the clerks, and managed to live there for months uncaught.

One major problem of the book is that it sometimes uses rhetoric to embellish the topic at hand in an attempt to bring it closer with what I think is architectural discourse. Already in the first chapter, the author claims that “for the burglar, every building is infinite, endlessly weaving back into itself through meshed gears” (p. 14). Now, I don’t have any problems with lofty rhetoric, but only if it’s warranted, but in many cases it actually isn’t. The author has obviously picked the more interesting cases of burglary; as he himself points out, most burglaries are rather boring affairs of smashing a window and running away with the telly. For this reason, it does come across a bit far-fetched when lofty language usually reserved for architecture is used for burglaries.