Books

Geoff Manaugh
A Burglar’s Guide to the City

For a burglar to be a burglar – and not just a thief or spy or saboteur – they must unlawfully enter a structure. As Geoff Manaugh puts it, “burglary requires architecture”.

Manaugh, a New York-based architect and blogger, regards burglars as idiots and savants. On the one hand, he says, they have a better grasp of architecture than most of us; on the other, they seem to have no idea of how a building is meant to be navigated. It’s as if they suffer from “a spatial disease” (“We could call it ‘burglar’s syndrome’ ”) which dissolves the conventional mode of reading
a building: door = entry, wall = barrier, and so on. A burglar is just as likely to gain ingress and egress through a wall or ceiling or even, if it’s a heist we’re talking, via a purpose-dug tunnel under the floor.

If Manaugh at times seems to romanticise burglars (calling them “dark wizards”, for example), his fascination is grounded in their subversion of the built environment. Architects and urban planners little imagine how their creations might be viewed with a burglar’s eye. Strong locks and flimsy walls; identical floor plans duplicated level to level and building to building; banks sited close to freeway on-ramps: all serve a felon’s purpose.

Each city’s crime profile owes something to the way it is built and what it’s built on. Unlike Berlin’s sandy soil or London clay, Manhattan bedrock deters the breaching of bank vaults by tunnelling. Los Angeles owed its former title as “bank robbery capital of the world” to that city’s extensive freeway network. 

As much as he admires the ingenuity of burglars, Manaugh is in awe of the methods employed by law enforcement. He flies with LA helicopter patrols and talks with G-men who burgle in the name of the law, introducing readers to “capture houses” (honey pots for burglars), the thermic lance and Thunder Sledge (brute-force instruments for gaining rapid entry), and a thorny “Living Fence” dubbed the “Rambo bush”.

As the ultimate in subversive building navigation, Manaugh cites the demolitional parkour stylings – “If there is not a corridor, he makes one” – of John McClane (Bruce Willis) in the original Die Hard. Manaugh is a fan of the heist movie, and his book has much in common with that genre. If its premise is stretched thin, if cliché and hyperbole pile up, it is a clever and enjoyable caper all the same.  FL

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 25, 2016 as "Geoff Manaugh, A Burglar’s Guide to the City ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL