1. Environmental
May 11, 2016updated 31 Mar 2023 1:53pm

On “A Burglar’s Guide to the City”: a tale of architectural innovators

By Christian Donlan

Reyner Banham described Los Angeles as an “autopia” – and there is something endearingly human to be glimpsed in the vast concrete tangle of a spaghetti junction. Yet Los Angeles has paid a price for its soaring highways – and not just in terms of pollution or road accidents.

In the early 1990s, when LA became the bank robbery capital of the world, it turns out that the roads were largely to blame. The city’s sprawling highway network – 900 miles of the stuff, haphazardly knotted to 21,000 miles of surface streets – made it surprisingly easy for criminals to plunder a bank and make a swift and untraceable getaway. It was so easy, in fact, that the term “stop-and-rob” was applied to banks located sufficiently close to exit- and on-ramps that they could be hit on a whim.

LA’s spatial failings are laid bare early on in The Burglar’s Guide to the City, a sprightly and ingenious new book by Geoff Manaugh, the author of the architectural website BLDGblog.com. Manaugh’s spent the last few years trying to view urban design through the eyes of people who seek to subvert it for their own gain. One of the things he has discovered is that cities like Los Angeles select their own forms of crime via their geographical idiosyncrasies as much as their social failings.

The book’s central theme, however, seems to go deeper. It hints that both criminals and the police forces arrayed against them sometimes become super-users of the urban environment, refusing to play by the established rules of public and private spaces, and are perhaps even joined in mutual disatisfaction.

Breaking and entering

Criminals are dismayed by the limited access provided by conventional doors and windows, so have increasingly taken to tunneling into houses through walls or cutting down through the ceilings. In turn, cops in LA, a city so over-extended that it can only be successfully patrolled by helicopter, want huge numbers painted on the roofs of houses to make the pursuit of fleeing criminals easier to orchestrate. Both groups demand more from the built environment than ordinary people do – and both exert tensions on cities that the rest of us have to live with.

Burglars have the most fun. “Burglars, it seemed to me, are uniquely ambitious in what they want from the buildings around them,” writes Manaugh. “[They want] to walk through walls, to enter through third-story windows rather than through front doors, and to pop-up from below, emerging from the city’s sewers like half-dreamed creatures of local folklore.”

Despite an early admission that “the vast majority of burglaries are not particularly exciting,” Manaugh still offers a wild narrative stuffed with shamefully entertaining criminals who will defeat hi-tech security with lumps of cheap foam and scale fascias with style, turning the architecture of a city against its inhabitants.

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“I like buildings,” admits the retired cat burglar Bill Mason, who moved from a career in real estate to breaking-and-entering once he’d transitioned from seeing balconies and fancy cornicing as details that might raise the rental price to tools that would allow him illicit access.

The freeways of Los Angeles provide a quick getaway. Image: Getty.

Mason is quick-witted and appealing. From his perspective, “every heist and the structure it took place in was an elaborate spatial puzzle waiting to be solved,” says Manaugh. He is far from alone in that way of thinking. Another burglar Manaugh profiles was so good at understanding local building codes that he could glance at the outside of a housing block and, just by following fire escapes, work out which floors had the biggest apartments and were therefore more likely to hold the finest goods. Much of the hard work of his robberies took place standing on the street, simply reading the landscape.

The most astonishing collusion between a criminal and the environment that Manaugh turns up revolves around Jeffrey Manchester, who was known as the Roofman due to his penchant for dropping in on his victims through holes he cut in the ceiling. Manchester almost exclusively robbed McDonalds restaurants: he’d realised that the fast food chain’s desire to create identical Big Macs in restaurants across America had also resulted in a vast number of buildings with identical floor-plans and identical daily schedules for handling money. Bernard Tschumi, the designer and architectural theorist, calls these sorts of repetitions of events linked to a specific place “sequences”, and Manchester had a real gift for uncovering them.

It was a gift that wasn’t limited to McDonalds, either. Following a short spell in prison – he learned the internal rhythms of incarceration and escaped almost immediately – Manchester ended up living in a small “apartment of his own making” hidden within the walls of a Toys R Us. He slept on a makeshift bed covered with a Spider-Man duvet, watched stacks of children’s DVDs, and even monitored the Toys R Us staff on his own CCTV made of baby monitors he’d stolen from the store. Over time, he started to alter the building’s security system and even change the schedules of the employees, perhaps with one last great heist in mind. Slowly he took control of all the building’s sequences. It’s almost a shame to read that he was eventually discovered.

The thin blue line

The police are at it too, of course. According to Manaugh, over the last decade, the FBI “have become twenty-first-century break-in artists extraordinaire, controlling the scenography of intrusion to a degree that would stun even Hollywood concept artists”. The FBI’s Stagehand initiative goes to extreme lengths to ensure its state-sanctioned burglaries “go off without a hitch,” sprinkling dust to cover tracks and, on one occasion, spiriting an expensive rug away in the middle of the night to be professionally cleaned after an agent had suffered a heart attack and voided his bowels.

In the UK, meanwhile, the police have a flair for entrapment, creating “capture houses”, or fake apartments carefully arranged so as to be too tempting for potential burglars to pass up as they walk past. They nurture the very crimes that they then step in to foil.

Keeping the peace can feel decidedly underhand wherever you turn, in fact. Elsewhere, Manaugh spots casino designers hemming patrons into their buildings with gardens of trifoliate orange, a fast-growing, prickly and generally unlovable shrub nicknamed the Rambo bush, which is also used to protect missile silos. He uncovers lawyers who have broadened the spatial aspects of the legal definition of burglary to the point that it can act as a sentence-extending modifier for crimes that take place in a broad variety of structures. You can now be arrested for burglary in a building that’s no more tangible than a hole in the ground. You can sometimes be arrested for burglary even if you don’t steal anything.

Protestors at a 2001 EU summit in Gothenberg remade the Swedish city in their own inimicable way. Image: Getty.

There is a wistfulness to much of this, however. For all the ingenuity on display, burglary is a dying art. In New York, for example, rates have fallen by 85 percent in the last twenty years, and one burglar Manaugh interviews has now retired “less because he was worried about getting caught,”  he muses, “and more out of an unexpected professional melancholy… Burglary had lost its cultural appeal, its hold on the imagination.”

It’s enough to make you consider a Kickstarter: put in five pounds and we’ll steal a T-shirt. Put in 1,000 and we’ll come to your house and rob you blind. Crime goes where the money is, inevitably: burglary has been replaced in part with phishing expeditions and other cyber-scams. Brick-and-mortar theft has been disrupted as swiftly as brick-and-mortar retail.

This sense of a passing era makes for a book whose moral centre can at times be thrillingly tricky to locate. Setting aside the brisk narrative’s one slightly clumsy moment – a conclusion in which the burglary of a relative causes Manaugh to concede that burglars are “assholes” after all – it’s largely left to former New Jersey state cop Karl Alizade to make the case for those affected by break-ins, and left with the trauma, paranoia and lingering unease of this intensely personal and invasive crime. Through his work, Alizade “was struck by the raw, destructive power burglary had on victims’ lives, making it second only to rape, in his view, in terms of its long-term emotional impact,” Manaugh writes. Alizade now owns a company that designs and manufactures high-end panic rooms, so at least that emotional impact isn’t entirely wasted.

And what about us? Towards the end of his journey, Manaugh starts to wonder if it isn’t the everyday citizens, caught in the middle, who have been getting things wrong: “as if it is nonburglars who have been misusing the built environment the whole time, as if it is the nonburglars who have been unwilling to question the world’s most basic spatial assumptions, too scared to think past the tyranny of architecture’s long-held behavioral expectations.”

Is obeying the law a failure of the imagination? Reading The Burglar’s Guide to the City, it can be hard not to ponder such inverted ideas. As the “Spy vs Spy mentality” Manaugh has described sees the arms race between cops and robbers heading into virtual territory, Rem Koolhaas’ suggestion that we have become “voluntary prisoners” of architecture starts to seem rather poignant. Or perhaps it’s just an incitement to start scaling the walls ourselves.

A Burglar’s Guide to the City, by Geoff Manaugh, is published by FSG. 

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