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  • A Burglar's Guide to the City: burglary as architectural criticism

    A Burglar's Guide to the City: burglary as architectural criticism

    For years, Geoff Manaugh has entertained and fascinated us with his BLDGBLOG, and now he's even better at full-length, with A Burglar's Guide to the City (previously), a multidisciplinary, eclectic, voraciously readable book that views architecture, built environments, and cities themselves through the lens of breaking-and-entering.

    It's a curious exercise, and at first, it feels a bit gimmicky, though it makes for a very fun gimmick! Manaugh runs down the ways that tunnelers, wallbreakers, roofcutters, window-climbers and all manner of alternative-enterers have found their way into the structures they want to rob. Like all the best true crime, this is great reading, a tour of nefarious ingenuity that has you shaking your head in admiration even as you wonder at how easy it would be to break into your own home.

    But Manaugh isn't dressing up salacious stories about cat-burglars and epic heists as high-minded architectural theory. The longer he goes at it, the more the thesis develops: the ways that criminals use cities and buildings (and the ways that law enforcement and governments try to limit them) reveals an awful lot about the daily business of our built environments.

    Just consider the nature of the crime of burglary: to qualify as a burglar, a criminal must enter a building. So what's a building? Is a car a building? What if someone lives in it? What's "entering?" If the car has already had its window smashed out by a different, unaffiliated criminal, does taking something off the parcel-shelf make you a burglar, or just a garden-variety thief?

    Far from being a silly philosophical game, the ways that legislatures have sought to answer this sort of thorny question over the years reveals a deep rift in the ways that civilians, architects and the law view the category of "structure," going back to classical times, when burglary applied only to breaking into homes, and was considered a conscience-shocking sort of crime that went beyond mere theft.

    Meanwhile, the co-evolution of urban landscapes and their buildings (whatever a "building" is) with crime and law enforcement has profoundly shaped our cities, from the razing of Paris's crooked alleys to make way for a rational urban plan where the police could more readily chase thieves to the sale of specially bred shrubs that are nearly impossible to crawl through, to be planted around buildings.

    Manaugh's work is characteristically far-ranging and eclectic, and always fascinating. From a day-long workshop on urban prepping to a deep dive into the security considerations in Vegas casino architecture (the awkward entry escalator is a convenient way to get everyone in the building to line up and submit to being photographed, single file, from several angles, by hidden cameras) to the incredible story of Roofman, a burglar who perfected a McDonald's franchise stickup that he practiced up and down the country, taking advantage of the identical layouts and procedures at each franchise building.

    Come for the true crime, stay for the education in architecture and urban planning.

    A Burglar's Guide to the City [Geoff Manaugh/FSG]

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