From ancient Roman thieves and the supervillians of early New York to fractal maneuvers in Nablus and helicopter patrols over the Hollywood Hills, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, the latest book from Geoff Manaugh, is a dizzying tour through thousands of years of crime and punishment. Visiting bait cars and capture houses, and speculating about the criminal possibilities offered by GPS jammers, spoofing, and drone technology, the book is packed with colorful, felonious characters and numerous stories of heists gone wrong. Manaugh’s main interest throughout is how burglars bend the built environment to suit their own ends, subverting the architecture of the city to create new ways of moving through buildings and street grids. "Burglary is the original sin of the metropolis," writes Manaugh. "Indeed, you cannot tell the story of buildings without telling the story of the people who want to break into them."
Like the book itself, a conversation with Geoff Manaugh is a fast-paced journey through layers of history, philosophy, pop culture, and poetic metaphors, moving from suburban backyards to ancient Egyptian ruins. On a recent visit to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, where his book will be launched on April 5th, the author reflected on the process of creating A Burglar’s Guide to the City. "I have definitely been interested in crime and heists for a really long time," said Manaugh, who has written about architecture and urban spaces on the popular BLDGBLOG since 2004. "I love the idea that architecture seems so orderly, and so navigable and so rational," he said, but "there is this other way of navigating through it that reveals the kind of irrational, unnamable, almost dizzying side of architecture…moving through walls, or in the case of burglary, moving up and down through holes in the floor."
Walking through the streets of Midtown Manhattan with Manaugh, it becomes clear how his fascination with burglary has completely shaped his vision of the urban landscape. On a stroll through the Diamond District, just a few blocks from the General Society, he points out the hidden cameras, plated doors, and security windows that are used to protect the thousands of jewelry vendors here, while also noting the weaknesses in their buildings’ designs. "You can fortify the front door as much as you like, but if you are above the sewer, it doesn’t matter," he observed, and indeed, the Diamond District has been a victim of numerous burglaries, heists, and robberies over the years, with thieves using everything from sledgehammers to ninja outfits to breach the barriers blocking their quest for wealth.
Despite his fascination with the criminal use of the built environment, Manaugh readily admits he is no criminal himself. "I tend to be a somewhat boringly law-abiding individual, actually," confessed the author, who has never burgled a building or engaged in urban exploration, although he doesn’t deny trespassing on private property. "I feel like literally everybody in the world trespasses at some point," said Manaugh. "You’ll cut across somebody's lawn, or you’ll take a shortcut on a path through the woods and end up on somebody’s property." He traces his own interest in burglary back to his childhood, when he wanted to be an archaeologist infiltrating the pyramids, and to his teenage years in the suburbs, "going through peoples’ back yards in the middle of the night, going into neighborhoods under construction, and exploring buildings that were still being built…a really exciting spacial experience."
As A Burglar’s Guide to the City makes clear, many other writers, artists, and cultures share this obsession with burglars and moving through urban space in illegal ways. The burglar archetype can be seen in the ever-growing genre of Hollywood heist films and the continuing popularity of crime novels by Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, and others, while the French have even built a monument to their own beloved fictional burglar, Dutilleul, the Man Who Walked Through Walls. "Burglars have played a key role as trickster figures in the public imagination for millennia," writes Manaugh. "Burglary becomes a myth, a symbol, a metaphor: it stands in for all the things people really want to do with the built environment, what they really want to do to sidestep the obstacles of their lives….There is something universally compelling about the idea of breaking and entering."
But Manaugh's take on the reality of burglary in the modern world is more depressing than folkloric. "Burglars are not always stupid…but for the most part, if you’ll pardon my French, they’re assholes," Manaugh writes. "They wreck the lives and security of others for as little as a necklace - often far less - leaving psychological scars no insurance policy can cover," and are like "human mosquitos, irritating, seemingly pointless, and unending in number," whose ill-gotten proceeds are "probably blown on drugs or strippers." Manaugh stands by his harsh characterization of burglars, although he remains fascinated by the idea of burglary as a way of accessing architecture. "I think it is so easy to try to romanticize burglary," he said, while contemplating a collection of hundreds of locks at the General Society, all designed to keep burglars out. "But when you actually look at the lived reality of burglary, it’s not romantic at all."
At the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, Geoff Manaugh’s book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, is on display in the front window, locked away behind plate glass, ostensibly secure from theft.
The interior of the General Society would be a fitting lair for one of the earliest burglars documented in Manaugh’s book, George Leonidas Leslie, an architect who used his "illicit spatial knowledge of the city" to plot a crime spree across the east coast in the 1800s.
The book launch on April 5th will include an opportunity to visit the John M. Mossman Lock Collection, which is featured in Manaugh’s book. The history of locks is laid out here, with hundreds of examples tracing the evolution of designs from wooden devices made 6,000 years ago to complicated 20th century liquid time locks and magic key locks.
"The poetry of these names is pretty great," said Manaugh, whose book observes how the technology of locks has changed over the years just as other anti-theft technology has. "No sooner does one side develop a new technology or technique," he writes, "than the other side ups its game, in an endless arms race over who controls the built environment."
"All locks like this are now kind of useless, in that you could just melt through them," said Manaugh, of the Mossman collection. "But the irony is that a lot of these are now actually so complicated, and use such old keys, that you could potentially find they would be harder to get through for contemporary security."
Just as lock technology has been forced to evolve over the years, so has the design of safes and vaults. This archaic example, turned into an artist's canvas, can be found at the Empire Safe Company, a 1904 business located just a few blocks from the Mossman Collection.
"To thwart these thieves, who are as crafty as they are cruel, the vault builders have evolved secret processes for toughening and hardening steel, they have invented time lock mechanisms, burglar alarms, trap guns, and have erected vaults, the doors of which, alone, weigh several tons," wrote John Mossman in his 1928 book The Lure of the Lock.
In the modern era, "burglary tools are effectively everywhere," writes Manaugh. "In the right hands, everyday items have an unexpected secondary function, able to become something like skeleton keys with which we can gain entrance to any building or thwart the world’s most sophisticated security systems."
"There is simply no cut-and-dried rule for when, where and under what circumstances you can expect a burglary to take place," writes Manaugh. "Burglars explore. They might not live in a city full of secret passages and trapdoors - but they make it look as if they do."
As the banking industry has evolved, and as burglars have adapted, security systems throughout the city have become obsolete. Many former bank vaults are now used as bars, restaurants, event spaces, and clothing stores, luring new visitors into spaces formerly off limits.
Two blocks away from the Mossman collection lies the Diamond District, one of the most heavily policed and fortified streets of the city. During a stroll down the street, Manaugh pointed out hidden cameras, recessed gates, protected windows, and other security features. "I don’t fantasize about the notion of ripping people off. I don’t have fantasies of pure larceny. But I think that notion of understanding how to get into architecture is a huge fantasy," he said.
Along this unique block-long shopping district, curious tourists and pedestrians examined thousand of diamonds, watches, and rings up close. "You have to wonder what glass they are using and how thick it is," said Manaugh.
Despite an obvious police presence on the street, "a culture of theft prevails, according to cops, who say this insular and ultra-competitive community is the city’s most tempting target for robbers, who pull off at least a couple of major heists each year," according to the Post.
"Burglars, it seemed to me, are uniquely ambitious in what they want from the buildings around them - to walk through walls, to enter through third-story windows rather than through front doors, and to pop up from below, emerging from the city’s sewers like half-dreamed creatures of local folklore," writes Manaugh.
"Everything architects take for granted can be literally undercut, punched through, knocked down, or simply sidestepped," he writes. "We would never have discovered the true potential of the built environment had it not been for someone willing to break the rules."
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012.