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Cops and Robbers and Architects: A Burglar's Guide to the City

Amazon Book Review: A Burglar's Guide to the CityGeoff Manaugh's A Burglar's Guide to the City is a caper of a book. On one hand, he presents a 2,000-year history of break-ins, heists, and break-outs--a litany of unlikely, bent geniuses and their extraordinary efforts in the service of subverting and outwitting security, their energy often exceeding the requirements of straight-world success. On another, Manaugh draws on the real-world experience and acumen of criminals and security experts alike--as well as his own esoteric architectural sensibility, as seen in his fascinating BLDGBLOG--analyzing structures from the perspectives of would-be breakers-and-enterers--those possessed of a sort of spatial disorder that prevents them from using architecture like the rest of us--and those who would keep them out. Unexpected and engrossing, A Burglar's Guide to the City will change the way you look at buildings.

Manaugh answered a few questions about A Burglar's Guide to the City, which we selected as a Best Book of the Month for April, 2016.

Amazon Book Review: Why did you choose to examine architecture from the criminal's perspective? What insights does this approach reveal that more traditional vectors do not?

Geoff Manaugh: The question of how something can be misused is always worth considering, whether you're talking about everyday products (such as spray paint) or something much more abstract (like nuclear physics). But now scale this up to the level of architecture—or even to an entire metropolis—and the question of how you can misuse the city reveals all sorts of overlooked details in the buildings all around us.

For example, looking at your neighborhood or at a specific apartment complex through the eyes of a burglar can reveal new places to hide, ways into and out of a building, and even potential getaway routes that you otherwise might not have seen. You can even notice things like how the city's freeways or its underground infrastructure might be used to help commit—or get away from—a crime.

More importantly, though, this sort of approach also gives you the ability to address and fix those vulnerabilities—to patch them up—or to shine light in those blind spots, you might say.

ABR: You point out the differences between burglary vs. such crimes such as theft and trespassing—terms that many would consider interchangeable. What's the difference, and what does that dichotomy imply?

GM: Burglary is especially interesting from an architectural point of view. As a crime, burglary actually requires buildings: you have to be inside a legally recognized structure for burglary to occur. This immediately opens up a long, often very bizarre conversation about what a legally recognized building can be. Is a telephone booth a building, or a houseboat, or a mine? As it happens, in many U.S. states, the answer is yes.

Here's why that matters. To talk about burglary means to talk about where interiors end and the outside world begins. It means talking about the tools someone can use to access architecture without using keys. It means talking about methods of entry—like cutting holes through roofs and walls, or tunneling up from the sewers—that a burglar might use, rather than just walking in through the front door.

Burglary, taken to these extremes, is about rethinking the city and how human beings move through it. It's about a fundamentally different approach to architecture.

ABR: You describe burglars as almost suffering from a spatial disorder where it comes to architecture and civic design. How does the mind of a burglar differ from normal architecture users? How does it affect the way they interact with structures?

GM: Well, the flipside to all this, of course, is that burglars aren't always the world's brightest people! I joke in the book that their apparent inability to use the front door—instead, coming down through an elevator shaft or crawling in through the building's ventilation network—might actually be neurological, a spatial disorder, a kind of burglars' syndrome. It's as if there are people out there who just can't use hallways or doors the way they're supposed to.

ABR: As security technology progresses, what sort of countermeasures can we expect from those who mean to subvert architectural security?

GM: This whole battle between cops and robbers is basically an arms race, a constant back-and-forth between one side and the other. You can see this in the tools criminals use to enter buildings or open vaults. These include everything from lock picks to so-called "burning bars." There's a really wide range there, in terms of technical ingenuity and sheer, brute-force power.

It's also an interesting mix of high-tech and lo-fi. Suspects fleeing LAPD helicopters are starting to use thermal camouflage to evade infrared cameras, while other burglars—like the ones who committed an infamous diamond heist in Antwerp—will just use electrical tape and hairspray to thwart a million-dollar security system.

ABR: Does geography and urban planning influence the types of crime prevalent in a given city? In what ways?

GM: Absolutely. In Los Angeles, for example, there is the idea of the "stop and rob": a business at the bottom of both an off-ramp and an on-ramp for the city's freeways. This means that a prospective criminal can pull off the freeway literally to stop and rob. While this helped lead to a spike in bank-crime numbers in the 1980s and 90s, you can also see it as an unanticipated side effect of the city's transportation infrastructure.

ABR: Is the relationship between burglars and architecture purely contentious, or could it be considered somewhat symbiotic?

It's definitely a bit of both—however, I think the symbiosis between them is more interesting to talk about. The legal nature of burglary makes this clear: without buildings, there are no burglars. Burglars are intertwined, in their very definition, with the built environment, coiled there like snakes.

ABR: Does architecture simply aim to repel burglars, or are there examples of ingenious alternatives designed to thwart invaders?

GM: One of my favorite examples of defensive architecture actually comes from Rajasthan, in India. My wife and I were traveling there a few years ago with some architecture students, and we visited a palace called Mehrangarh. Not only is it an absolutely spectacular place to visit, if you're interested in architecture, but it had this great security detail.

At the very end of the long approach road that ramps up to the gate of the inner palace, the door itself is turned 90-degrees so that you don't walk straight to it. Of course, this means that you can't see the gate as you approach, but it also means invading armies—specifically ones with charging elephants—wouldn't have been able to attain enough speed to ram the door. There literally would not have been enough space for them to maneuver or to gain speed for bursting the gate.

This is actually very similar to advice you see for older bank security design, where it was recommended that you make certain hallways sufficiently narrow that certain burglary tools can't physically be used there. The tools would need more space to operate than the hallway would allow.

So it's not charging elephants, of course! But it's still interesting to see how these sorts of approaches to spatial security resonate across centuries and continents.


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