How Burglars Hack Architecture to Commit Crimes and Take Advantage of Cities
A new book takes a look at our everyday urban environments through the eyes of the criminals aiming to hack them.
This article originally appeared on VICE US
As a kid, I always fantasized about booby-trapping my house with elaborate tripwires and swinging paint cans to outsmart potential thieves a la Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. About ten years later, I'd empathize with the perspective of the hypothetical criminals as I'd try to sneak out of the house through a particularly noisy sliding glass door and imagine how much easier it'd be with one of those circular glass cutter/suction cup combos made famous by cartoon cat burglars. I never acted upon either fantasy, but in those moments, I was viewing my structural surroundings differently, almost criminally, focusing on the tactical aspects of architecture rather than its intended purposes.
Author Geoff Manaugh, who created the design website BLDGBLOG, lays out a similar scenario of a teenager trying to sneak out his family's house in a passage from his enlightening new book and responds: "Congrats: you were looking at a building the way a burglar would." His aim isn't to shame the reader, but rather to provide a relatable entryway to his book A Burglar's Guide to the City, out April 5 through FSG Originals. A Burglar's Guide takes a look at our everyday urban environments through the eyes of the criminals aiming to hack them, illuminating the spatially-specific tactics used to break in, escape, and stay hidden in today's surveillance-heavy metropolises. The goal, however, is not to be an actual handbook for the aspiring thief, but rather an alternative study of architecture and urban design.
Through interviews with former burglars, as well as law enforcement and security professionals, Manaugh explains how various features of cities and buildings lead to very specific types of burglaries. Los Angeles, with its sprawling highways, lends itself to quick bank robberies with easy escape routes. Chain businesses with identical layouts and employee schedules, such as McDonalds, invite repeat thieves who've previously robbed other locations. "If you look closely, from just the right angle," he writes, "every city implies the crimes that will one day take place there."
Throughout the text, Manaugh carefully organizes chapters focused on cities, buildings themselves, common burglary tools, and, finally, getaway strategies, bringing us along for the ride for an exhilarating, perspective-shifting read. Put simply, A Burglar's Guide to the City is a unique way to approach a text on city infrastructure and architecture.
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VICE: While studying architecture and urban planning, was burglary always at the back of your mind?
Geoff Manaugh: I actually didn't formally study architecture. My background is really more in writing, anthropology, and art history. But what started happening was the more I listened to people try to recommend quote-unquote "architectural films," which inevitably meant a documentary about an architect, the more I kept noticing that every time you watch a heist movie, there's always going to be a scene where everybody starts talking about architecture. It's how to get from one building to another, or how to get from one room to the next, or some conversation where they're all pointing at floorpans or building little architectural models. I just felt like there's all this architecture hidden in plain sight, and it's in the guise of a burglary or a heist film. So I just started looking into that more in the real world and noticed that even if you read police reports or talk to burglars or the FBI about bank heists, all of it has this architectural angle. I decided that I wanted to show how burglary, at its heart, really is an architectural crime.
What do you mean by that?
The buildings we live in have always hidden these other ways of using them, and burglars come along and they reveal to us that we actually can use our buildings differently. We can go through the walls from one room to the next; we can ride on top of elevators to get between floors. [Heist films] reveal that the built environment is a puzzle we haven't been trying to solve, and that they've come up with this really interesting solution to it... I feel like burglars show us how to cheat buildings and bend the world to their will using shortcuts. There's something interesting in the abstract, conceptual side of burglary and how it undercuts all of the stuff we trust about architecture.
At one point you write that burglary "stands in for all the things people really want to do with the built environment." Do you think people all have a subconscious desire to commit crime, or rather just a desire to see convention turned on its head?
Well I think it's both, but it definitely is a lot of the latter part. What I think is pretty interesting is that at some point in everyone's life, you think like a burglar. It's when you're trying to sneak out of the house as a teenager, or you're trying to sneak downstairs to look at Christmas presents, or you're doing anything where you're trying not to get caught, sneaking in, out of, or through a building in any way. Everybody has a bit of that burglar thing in them, so I think that's part of it.
But more specifically to your question, do I think that everybody fantasizes about hitting banks and stuff? I don't think we live in a world where everyone's planning to hit the Manhattan Savings Institution, but I do think that everyone has some fantasy of what they would do if they showed up one day and they could get into the vaults and walk out a millionaire.
I decided that I wanted to show how burglary, at its heart, really is an architectural crime. — Geoff Manaugh
With that in mind, do you think burglary has been or has the potential to be romanticized more than other types of crime?
I do. That's actually one of the funny things that came up while doing research for the book. One of the [security professionals] I interviewed, to be completely honest, seemed depressed that burglary was on the wane and that there aren't as many burglars today as there used to be. He misses the fact that it used to be this romantic, dashing, George Clooney-like thing, and now it's just smash-and-grab jewelry break-ins or cybercrime, and it's just kind of boring.
Even before you tie up the morality question in the last chapter, the book seems to focus on nonviolent offenders who rob either businesses or the extremely wealthy. Was that your intent?
Definitely, in the sense that I didn't want to write about abductors or murderers or the instances you hear about where a family is held hostage in their home for twelve hours while burglars get all of their money out of the bank and then set fire to the house—stuff like that. Those are not the types of things that I wanted to write about, let alone celebrate. My intent wasn't to sugarcoat burglary, but to write about burglary as it is legally defined, which is this really strange use of architecture that doesn't by any means imply acts of violence against homeowners—or for that matter against burglars—because there are quite a few stories about people laying booby traps to kill burglars.
After attending an "urban escape and evasion" seminar, you remark how you began to see the world through the eyes of a burglar, for instance getting a little more nervous than usual when police entered a bank you were in. Did you experience similar perspective shifts after spending time shadowing law enforcement, or did you more often imagine yourself on the burglar's side?
There was definitely a constant shifting of perspective. When I went up in a helicopter with the air support division of the LAPD, entire parts of the city began to seem different to me. For example, the fact that criminals can use the streets around LAX as a place to hide because helicopters can't always approach the airport. That entire neighborhood still feels different to me, knowing that if you have to, you could abandon a car here, hop into another vehicle, drive out, and probably get away. To realize that there's an entire neighborhood that lets that happen is really interesting to me.
The buildings we live in have always hidden these other ways of using them, and burglars come along and they reveal to us that we actually can use our buildings differently
Over the course of your interviews with law enforcement and security officials, were any of them skeptical or even concerned about the intent of your book?
I definitely had to learn very carefully how to ask them to do an interview. I couldn't just say, Hey, I'm writing a book about burglary and architecture . First of all, people don't know what that means. But yeah, there were definitely people who didn't want to talk. The people who were the most close-lipped were those in the tactical equipment manufacturing industry. Many said, "I have clients who would be really pissed off if they even knew I spoke to the media." It was so difficult to get anyone in that field to talk to me. Even the air support division— when I first started flying with them, there were some pretty skeptical people there who would do anything possible to avoid answering questions like, "What's the best way for a criminal to get away from you?"
It also worked the other way around, talking to people who had a background in bank robbery, burglary, or lock-picking. There was a skepticism, like, "Wait a minute, what are you trying to say about me? Are you trying to paint me as this lifetime criminal who has no chance of rehabilitation? Or saying that lock-pickers are all burglars and we need to be surveilled by the NYPD?"
'A Burglar's Guide to the City' is out April 5 through FSG Originals. Pre-order it here.
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