27: A Burglar's Guide to the City

LONG review


What is more sacred, what is more inviolable, than the house of every citizen - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Burglary, placed in the expanded context of thousands of years of urban development, helped to catalyze a kind of evolutionary cat-and-mouse game through which cops and robbers inadvertently collaborated, reacting to one another and shaping the legal, fictional and literal dimensions of the built environment - Geoff Manaugh

Simply put, A burglar’s guide to the city is a piece of investigative journalism on the topic of burglary that opens interesting avenues into architectural theory. Not the type of theory that sits on books for fifty years waiting to be read but rather, theory that is interesting, engaging and practical; the type used for asking real questions about contemporary building design; questions like what is the delimiting envelope of a structure? and how are building codes transforming our cities? This unusual premise is revisited often by Geoff reminding the reader that architects are not the only ones that meditate on the possibilities of the built environment.

Burglars are the M.C. Eschers of the built environment, approaching every wall and ceiling as a door-to-be, a connection waiting to happen, then making their vision real with the help of burning bars and saws - Geoff Manaugh

Not to minimize this book’s great research pieces and curious case-studies on the scale, location, tools and history of burglary, yet I do believe that its strength lies on its hands-on approach. The author’s investment within A Burglar’s Guide to the city is not only intellectual.

The author sets to go out and get first-person impressions with (ex) burglars, police agents, security experts, lock-picking aficionados and famous architects. This is due perhaps to the type of urban analysis needed for the story to flow; the narrative is most poignant through those people involved with burglary directly; people such as locksport expert Schuyler Towne, panic room manufacturer Karl Alizade or Cole Burdette, a tactical flight officer of the LAPD Air Support Division.

Geoff, is even ready to visit the grave of New York’s most infamous architect / thief: George Leonidas Leslie (easily, the most named person on the book). Leslie does have a curious background, using his education in architecture at the University of Cincinnati for nefarious purposes, becoming the greatest bank robber of his time. Perhaps for what he represents as an architect gone rogue he is unique in the profession, an individual with a personal agenda that made him live on a parallel reality where architecture’s relevance was not on its beauty or functionality but on its potential to aid his bank heists.

Cities get the types of crime their design calls for - Geoff Manaugh

Burglars do have a very particular type of mind though, undeterred by the consequences of their actions they seek to reap rewards off of someone else’s mindlessness; they are ready to use architecture unintuitively and disregard conventions. They also possess skills on the premeditative phases of space-hacking events; a certain type of planning that usually involves intelligence, ingenuity, inventiveness and bravado, a combination rather hard to find which is precisely why the great successful heists, such as the ones often depicted on american movies (think of Ocean’s Eleven), are actually quite rare in real life. It seems burglary falls more on the smash-and-grab spur of the moment category, coupled with the fact that, surprisingly, burglary is on the decline worldwide.

janice kerbel - 15 Lombard street - art-piece / research on how to rob a bank

janice kerbel - 15 Lombard street - art-piece / research on how to rob a bank

Burglary, in its very essence, is a crime that cuts down through the outer layers of the world to reveal the invisible grain of things, how cities really work and buildings are meant to function, from quiet side streets to emergency fire stairs and elevator shafts - Geoff Manaugh 

For architects, chapter 5: Inside Job has to be the most illuminating. Geoff’s handling of Bernard Tschumi’s The Manhattan Transcripts is fantastic; his understanding on the significance of sequence and spatial behaviors, superb. Coupled with observations on game-design, casino and art museum security, Janice Kerbel’s work on burglary, Eyal Weizman and Rem Koolhaas theories and films such as Alphaville, the Shining and Die Hard, this chapter is emblematic for the whole book.

It goes to show what type of writer Geoff Manaugh is; a modern writer that is able to grasp a theme and explore it through low and highbrow references; his is a type of writing that is able to interrelate different types of thinking; a writing style probably developed through years of editing the most famous architecture blog in the world: BLDG BLOG and he didn’t even study architecture, imagine if he would have.

sequence: series of actions that are at least partially determined by the design of the space itself

spatial behaviour: the design of a space or a buildings tends to influence what occurs within

Die Hard screenshot

Die Hard screenshot

p.s. BUY A BURGLAR’S GUIDE TO THE CITY HERE (US) or here (AMAZON.DE) or if you live in the netherlands here (bol.com)

works mentioned and further reading:

City of Quartz by Mike Davis (book)

the Manhattan Transcripts by Bernard Tschumi (book)

where the money is: True Tales from the Bank Robbery Capital of the World by William J. Rehder (book) 

Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason (book)

Local Code: The Constitution of a City at 42 degrees North Latitude by Michael Sorkin (book)

Locks, Safes and Security: An International Police Reference by Marc Weber Tobias (book)

every move will be recorded by Gregoire Chamayou

15 Lombard st. by janice Kerbel

John M. Mossman Lock Collection

website: A BURGLAR’S GUIDE TO THe city


Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux