Breaking and Entering

Review: Geoff Manaugh, ‘A Burglar’s Guide to the City’


We construct buildings for shelter from the elements—shelter from wild animals, for that matter. We build for warmth in the winter and cool in the summer. We build to maximize acreage, piling floor on ceiling until the idea of a second-story office becomes something like the Empire State Building. We build for defense, from the first walled village of mud huts to the stacked stone of curtain walls and castle keeps. Sometimes we build for aesthetics, the sheer look of the thing. Other times we build for the glory of God or the monumental remembrance of heroes. Often we construct buildings to invite people in. Even more often we construct buildings to keep people out.

Think of it this way: Efficiency experts tend to examine buildings for their usefulness, their fittingness for their purpose. Architects prefer to consider buildings for their shape, their sweep and presence in a built landscape. And thieves—the sternest and most unsympathetic of architectural critics—judge buildings by the possibilities they offer for felony.

Or so, at least, Geoff Manaugh argues in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, a light new study of the successes and failures of human architecture. Everything in creation can be seen from different angles, examined down a variety of vectors. A Burglar’s Guide to the City has the originality to demand that we look at buildings in the way the author thinks that criminals do: always on the lookout for the weak spot and the unsuspected opening.

In one sense, the result is a mess of book. Manaugh would make a terrible criminal, apparently incapable of sticking to a plan once he’s made it. A Burglar’s Guide to the City darts madly from topic to topic, brief scene to brief scene, asking us to consider rooftop access in Ancient Rome—and then, before we’ve settled in, leaping to the construction of medieval locks, the alarm systems of modern museums, and the odd legal fictions involved in the law’s definition of breaking and entering.

In another sense, however, A Burglar’s Guide to the City is a masterpiece of mad ideas, pouring out one after another. The book is one of the most enjoyable volumes of the year, if the reader considers it not as the well-oiled plot of a burglary movie but as a collection of all the wild thoughts of a master thief as he sits in a café across the street from his target, nursing a cup of coffee and considering the possibilities for getting in and out.

"Burglary requires architecture," Manaugh points out, but it was the genre of heist movies that actually inspired him to begin his research. Burglary, as a legal term, means the unauthorized entry into buildings with the intent of committing theft. It denotes, in other words, a crime without violence against other people, which is what makes it ideal for a film script that asks from the audience a little sympathy for criminal activity. From The League of Gentlemen, a fast-paced 1960 British film, to Ocean’s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh’s clever 2002 remake of a casino job, the movies have shown us any number of scenes of criminals pouring over blueprints, computer models, and city sewer plans, as they plot the military precision of their fictional break-ins.

A journalist by training, without any background in architecture, Manaugh decided to find out whether any of it was true outside the movies. And he discovered that criminals do, indeed, use architecture and urban regulation against themselves. "Cities get the type of crime their design calls for," Manaugh writes, illustrating his point with the ways that the freeways of southern California helped turn Los Angeles into "the bank robbery capital of the world" during the 1990s. Building codes allow thieves to count the fire escapes and fire doors, learning thereby the number of offices and apartments in a building. The regulations for elevators slice open even the most apparently secure structures. Architectural decoration becomes a set of climbing guides on the outside of buildings. The costs of construction are reduced when duct work, plumbing, and electrical wiring are all routed through the same crawlspaces—which then become paths for thieves to slip inside the back spaces of a building.

Or the "Matrix space," as Manaugh insists on calling the "dissolving and pop-up entryways through to other worlds." The prose of A Burglar’s Guide to the City can get to be a little much. Burglars are "like worms, like serpents, as if shape-shifting back and forth between species, between minerals and plants, burrowing their way into buildings before disappearing again through the ceiling in ways that architects would never have imagined nor planned," Manaugh writes. Thieves are the "misusers" of urban design, who take advantage of "architectural dark matter."

If there is a design to A Burglar’s Guide to the City, it involves the author’s switching back and forth between criminals and cops, the thieves determined to break in and the people just as determined to keep those thieves out. Both are anti-architects, in their way. "Roofman," for instance, is a character who figured out the security flaws in the mandated design of McDonald’s fast-food restaurants. Timing his attacks for maximal cash and minimal human presence, he would enter through the roof and hide in the ceiling—dropping down at the right moment to clean out the registers. By Manaugh’s account, Roofman burglarized over forty stores in nine states before he was caught hiding in an apartment he’d tunneled out in a suburban mall, between a Toys R Us and a Circuit City.

Along the way, A Burglar’s Guide to the City profiles a number of burglars who declare themselves the last of a breed. The rise of electronics made their jobs much more complicated and difficult, but it created in turn a new field of crime that drew away the criminals who might once have been burglars. If you know enough about computerization to overcome a modern security system, you probably know enough to find easier ways to convert your knowledge into illicit gain. Reports of burglary are down across the United States in past twenty years, and marvelously entertaining newspaper accounts of brilliant thefts are getting rarer, whatever the movies would have us believe.

But A Burglar’s Guide to the City isn’t really about the act of burglary. It’s more about the attitude of burglary—a unique angle from which to examine buildings and a fascinating perspective on architecture. Manaugh dwells a little on the actual effect of theft on those who have suffered from it. Robbed and living in a violated space, the victims are left with a sense of being unsafe that takes years to fade. But mostly he writes of the burglar’s view of the world as more amoral than immoral. It’s an eye that seeks out misuse rather than use. A sense of weakness rather than strength. An observation of the unintended rather than the intended.

Back in the early 1800s, Thomas de Quincey observed that, once we know we can do nothing to help, a building on fire can be quite enjoyable to watch. Something similar might be said of Geoff Manaugh’s work. Once we’re certain we aren’t going to become burglars, A Burglar’s Guide to the City demonstrates that burglary is quite enjoyable to contemplate.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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