A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh review – how a criminal sees the world

Burglars look at buildings in a different way, seeing lift shafts that can be shimmied up and plasterboard walls to cut through. This playful book is crammed with good anecdotes

In June 1986, strange mechanical sounds were heard coming from the ground around the vault of the First Interstate Bank in Hollywood. The police and the bank’s own security staff investigated but could find nothing wrong. The noises were dismissed as “just a rat running around inside the walls or something”. But they continued. Sometimes there were temporary power cuts or interruptions to the phone system. One night, the internal muzak system started playing, scaring an employee who was working late. Staff joked that the bank was haunted. But no one was laughing when an employee opened the vault one day and discovered a tunnel drilled through the floor: $172,000 in cash and $2.5m in personal belongings had been stolen.

The three- or four-man team had driven Suzuki quad bikes through West Hollywood’s narrow storm sewer network to access the area from below. Then the gang, who were probably trained in mining, slowly drilled a 30 metre tunnel up into the vault. It was an extraordinarily daring heist, the inspiration for Michael Connelly’s detective novel, The Black Echo (1992). The Hole in the Ground Gang, as it became known, was never caught.

“Their tunnel was fantastic”, a retired FBI agent tells architectural writer Geoff Manaugh. Such devious misuses of the city’s buildings and infrastructure are the focus of this highly original book. Burglary, Manaugh writes, is “topology pursued by other means: a new science of the city, proceeding by way of shortcuts, splices and wormholes”. Burglars don’t see the city we see. They see a network of vulnerabilities to be used for breaking and entering. They see lift shafts that can be shimmied up, thermal cameras that can be disabled with hairspray, and doors that can be easily opened with lockpicks.

They see plasterboard walls that can be cut through in an instant: “like clouds, apartment walls are mostly air”. According to Manaugh, burglars understand the architecture of the city better than anyone. They are the “dark wizards of cities and buildings, unlimited by laws that hold the rest of us in”.

Manaugh begins and ends his “burglar’s guide” with the man who was responsible for “one of the most spatially astonishing crime sprees in US history”. George Leonidas Leslie arrived in New York City in 1869, the year construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge. A trained architect, he was ambitious, charismatic and well-connected: he could have worked for any of the city’s wealthiest clients. Instead he chose to use his training “to rob the place blind”. Before his career was cut short in 1878, when he was murdered by one of his partners in crime, it was estimated that he and his gang were responsible for nearly 80% of bank robberies in the US.

The “preternaturally gifted” Leslie collected “a burglar’s library of architectural documents” and spent months and even years casing targets. He broke into banks just to wander their corridors at night, measuring and timing as he went. Leslie believed “the best way to commune with an architectural space was by breaking into it”. He used this information to build life-size models of targets in a Brooklyn warehouse, “stage sets on which the art of burglary could be rehearsed to perfection”. Having become an underworld architectural consultant, advising criminals on their heists, he was, writes Manaugh, “both burglary’s patron saint and architecture’s fallen angel”.

Leslie exemplifies Manaugh’s argument that “burglary is designed into the city as surely as your morning commute”. To explore this delightfully subversive idea he takes to the skies with the Air Support Division of the LAPD, which operates the largest police helicopter fleet in the world from a building he describes as “a kind of beached warship in the heart of the city”. Always fascinated by new technology, he gazes through the helicopter’s infra-red camera at “the strangely beautiful thermal flare of human life” below, and explains how the latest radar gadget will allow the police to see people deep inside buildings.

There are 900 miles of highway in sprawling LA, which helped to make it the bank robbery capital of the world in the 1990s: “every city blooms with the kinds of crime most appropriate to its form”. In the future, Manaugh suggests, getaways will be engineered by hacking the city: think The Italian Job but with drones used to reprogram the lights at each intersection. Manaugh cites the example of a school boy in Łodz, Poland, who modified his TV remote control and created a superswitch for the city’s tram signalling system.

Having learned that the operating system of New Songdo City, South Korea, is backed up and stored in a secret safe deposit box, he speculates that whoever stole it could perpetrate “the heist of the century” – its owner of the operating system to a smart city would possess the digital key to every electronic door lock, surveillance camera and bank vault. The ultimate master key.

There are some wonderful anecdotes in Manaugh’s book, such as the hapless burglar who phoned the police when he became convinced someone else was robbing the house he was burgling. Another burglar cut his way through the plasterboard walls of an entire Baltimore block: “he was the worm in the apple, eating from one unit to the next”, leaving in his wake “a whorled halo of negative space like a vortex through which household goods would disappear”. And then there was the man who was caught after 10 hours crawling through the air ducts of a veterinary clinic in an attempt to steal tranquillisers. He was naked and armed with a flashlight and hammer, “like some surreal nudist remake of Die Hard”.

Manaugh has a soft spot for John McTiernan’s movie. It is, he says, “easily one of the best architectural films of the past three decades”. What excites him about Die Hard is the way the hero, John McClane, subverts the design of the high-rise Nakatomi Plaza, using it in ways never intended by the architect: “If there is not a corridor, he makes one”. McClane’s misuse of the building reveals what Manaugh terms “Nakatomi space”, a near-infinite internal structure that can be explored in any way possible.

This praise for Die Hard reveals the playfulness at the heart of Manaugh’s book, which is also a feature of his acclaimed architectural website BLDGBLOG. The purpose here is not to celebrate burglars as urban superheroes, “dark lords of architectural analysis”. For the most part, he concludes, they’re simply “assholes” who wreck lives as well as buildings. But in Manaugh’s hands the burglar becomes a wonderful metaphor for a new way of seeing architecture and the city: as “a spatial puzzle waiting to be solved”.

PD Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age is published by Bloomsbury. To order A Burglar’s Guide to the City for £9.34 (RRP £10.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


PD Smith

The GuardianTramp

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