Police, Thieves and the Urban Fabric

burglarbookshot-1Geoff Manaugh writes about buildings in a way that upends conventional ways of looking at architecture. Now he has published a new book called “A Burglar’s Guide to the City.” In it, he describes the cat and mouse game that police and thieves play in buildings and in the city, and how crimes often reflect – and shape – the cities in which they occur.

Manaugh argues that burglars can teach us about architecture “by cutting new doorways through walls to connect rooms that weren’t previously connected, or to find ways to get through ceilings or even down through roofs, in a way that kind of reveals a potential of architecture. And that only really comes out through this aggressive hands-on approach that criminals and burglars use,” Manaugh said.

DnA: What compelled you to write this book?

Geoff Manaugh: As an architecture writer and someone writing about design in cities for more than a decade, it really seemed interesting to me that one of the most interesting conversations occurring about the built environment wasn’t in fact related to architecture offices or architecture schools at all but was coming out of the world of criminals.

You know when you see a police report or even watch the morning news when there’s been a break-in the night before, you see these really kind of funny baffled interviews where the homeowner has no idea how somebody got in or how a criminal was able to go from one business to another to another crawling about the ceiling tiles or that kind of thing. It seems that heists and burglary and break-ins all foreground architecture in a really strange and often surreal way. And then on top of that burglary as a crime, which differentiates it from just theft, for example, is that it has to occur inside a building. And so architecture and burglary are just flip sides of the same coin. You can’t be a burglar without architecture.

DnA: What are the stats on burglary these days?

GM: Interestingly, it’s actually in a pretty precipitous decline. It’s gone down from really astonishing heights in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s wrong to say that it’s rare but it’s definitely less common than it once was. Here in New York City, for example, since 1990 burglary statistics have gone down more than 87 percent. Which is really astonishing. I mention in the book at one point actually that the statistics pretty much everywhere in the world — although they’re actually on the rise in China — are down with burglary, so extensively actually that The Economist had an article a couple years ago that was kind of unintentionally melancholy. The headline was actually, “Where Have All the Burglars Gone?”, almost as if it missed them.

DnA: Your book spans all sorts of burglaries dating back over a century. Let’s just start with the character that you open your book with.

Geoff Manaugh. Photo by Nicola Twilley
Geoff Manaugh. Photo by Nicola Twilley

GM: That was a really fascinating individual, a man named George Leonidas Leslie. He actually trained as an architect. He was from Cincinnati, he was from a relatively well-to-do family. And this was in the mid 19th century. He decided to move to New York City. It was very cosmopolitan, and it was the place to go to make your fortune. He was a very gifted architect. He graduated with honors. But once he got there he had, I guess you could say, a change of heart. Instead of finding a way to improve the lives of others or to use design for the betterment of society, he realized that with his charisma and all of his architectural training he could actually just rob the place. And so he formed a burglary troupe, kind of a crew of other veteran criminals who he would help architecturally train in terms of how to navigate rooms in the dark and that kind of thing. And at one point his group was actually behind an estimated eighty percent of all bank crime in the United States, which is really jaw dropping.

He established a lot of well-known Hollywood tropes for burglars. One of the things he would do for example was build a duplicate vault. He would find out what kind of safe or vault was being used in a certain bank or business, and then he’d either get a copy of it or he would actually build a surrogate. And then he would install that in a warehouse in Brooklyn. And he would use that as a kind of architectural staging ground for understanding the exact layout of the bank that they might hit. And even then how to get into the vault.

DnA: The point that you continually made throughout the book is that burglars have an often more sophisticated understanding of buildings even than architects do. And they’re exceedingly good at reading plans.

GM: Yeah. One of the things I thought was worth highlighting was that if you want to engage with architecture in this very hands-on way, with an aggressiveness that everyday users of buildings don’t let themselves experience, that you can get to know the built environment in a much more intricate and much more sophisticated way. In other words, if you don’t take a building for granted, that you have to use these stairs or that hallway or this door, you can reveal possibilities for moving through architectural space that other people might not ever even know are there.

I think that some of the imaginative allure of this kind of thing is that this touches on relatively universal fantasies of things like discovering a secret passage behind the wall. Or parting the clothes in a closet and realizing there’s a hidden room back there. Or for that matter these kind of archaeological fantasies of finding a new way into an ancient tomb, or there’s another room hidden behind King Tut’s tomb.

I think all of these share a kind of spatial imagination. And so that’s why I point out in the book that what burglars do, perhaps inadvertently, but nonetheless do accomplish, is a revealing of a different aspect to the cities around us. And that if you look at the city with a burglar’s eye, you can see all kinds of new possibilities that you wouldn’t notice before.

DnA: You talk about individual buildings and then we come to the city. And you say that cities get the burglary or the types of burglary that suit the urban form. You have a really fantastically interesting chapter on L.A. in that regard. Tell us about the kinds of burglaries that L.A. was sort of built for and became the capital of.

GM: Well one thing that’s really interesting about Los Angeles is that it’s criminal record, as it were, reveals things about its urban fabric. And so one of the things I point out in the book is that L.A. is notorious for its freeways and its traffic jams. But it is also equally famous for its high speed car chases that get televised on the evening news and sometimes even become national, obviously in the case of the O.J. Simpson chase. But fundamentally what you’re seeing is a kind of alternative use of the city’s transportation infrastructure.

And so one inadvertent side effect of the construction of L.A.’s freeways in the 1960s was that over the years and decades to come, gradually a criminal misuse of those freeways was discovered. And that’s what has been termed by the police and the F.B.I. as the “stop and rob.” The “stop and rob” is a really interesting category of business. It’s usually a bank, a credit union, or it could just simply be a bodega that’s down at the bottom of an off-ramp, but also at the bottom of an on-ramp. And so you literally can just stop and rob. You will just get off the freeway, rob the place to get back on the freeway, and if you’ve timed everything right and it’s not rush hour you can be in Santa Monica or over the hills in Glendale in an instant. What’s interesting about that is that in the early ’90s it got so bad actually that the bank robbery rate in Los Angeles made it the “world capital” of bank robbery. There was actually a robbery of a bank every 45 minutes of every workday.

Hear more from Geoff Manaugh in our interview here: