Books : reviews

Geoff Manaugh.
A Burglar's Guide to the City.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2016

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 25 December 2018

At the core of A Burglar’s Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.

Encompassing nearly two thousand years of heists and break-ins, the book draws on the expertise of reformed bank robbers, FBI special agents, private security consultants, the LAPD Air Support Division, and architects past and present.

Whether discussing how to pick locks or climb the walls of high-rise apartments, finding gaps in a museum’s surveillance routine or considering home invasions in ancient Rome, A Burglar’s Guide to the City ensures readers will never enter a bank again without imagining how to loot the vault, or walk down the street without planning the perfect getaway.

There is a standard way to use a building: enter by the doors, look though the windows. There is a standard way to use a city: travel along the roads. Burglars don’t use buildings and cities in standard way: some enter buildings though windows, drop through hatches and ceilings, cut through walls; some move around cities through tunnels, either pre-existing or self-dug. Manaugh describes many of these alternate uses: some exceedingly clever, some just plain dumb. And he describes attempts to thwart the burglars, from law-enforcement helicopter patrols to high security panic rooms.

I have come across, in fiction if not in reality, many of the concepts here, but they are all engagingly presented. One aspect I found particularly intriguing was how law enforcement could get lost in certain kinds of locations. In one case it was helicopter pilots over a regular grid of streets, in another it was officers on the ground in a huge building with several identical parts. Both were lost in “a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”. We know the solution to this: drop landmarks. Law enforcement would like home owners to paint identifiers on their roofs. Alternatively, architects could design more varied structures: “a maze of twisty little passages, all different”, with the necessary landmarks already present.

Being able to think “sideways”, like a burglar, is a useful skill when designing any artefact: it will be misused, if not on purpose, then at least accidentally. Having these misuses catered for up front in the design is a plus. Having these literally concrete examples in mind can makes for more vivid analogies when trying to think sideways.