George Leonidas Leslie arrived in New York by way of Cincinnati in 1869. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the architect hoped to carve out a niche for himself in the booming construction industry, helping to erect mansions and skyscrapers. Instead, he was scouting out the next spots to target on a spree of heists that would last nearly a decade.
Leslie leveraged his charm and training to wheedle into parties and scope out the surroundings. He strode in and poked around, and—thanks to his debonair posturing—didn’t arouse suspicions. The suave con man is a logical character to introduce Geoff Manaugh’s new book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City (FSG Originals, $16). Who better to bust into buildings than someone with an intimate knowledge of how they’re constructed?
There’s something alluring about the trope of a criminal mastermind. For proof, look no further than the dozens of action flicks starring a cat burglar dangling from a whisper-thin cable over a museum vitrine while music thumps in the background. Manaugh describes this type of character as “an omnipotent, nearly super-natural bandit who can break into any building, pick any lock, slip into any barrier using ingenious tools indistinguishable from magic.” But the author notes that most burglaries aren’t glamorous or audacious—they’re opportunistic, and, more importantly, they’re horribly invasive violations that can rattle someone’s sense of security.
That’s a given, but it’s not Manaugh’s point. Instead, what’s most interesting to Manaugh, who also writes the website BLDGBLOG, is how discussions of burglary quickly become “an incredibly architectural conversation.” He’s not interested in the act of taking other people’s things—“it’s not something I morally celebrate”—but in what these felonies reveal about how people move within architectural spaces. “It’s about how someone got into a building, or from one room to the next, or from the ground to the second floor without using the stairs, tunneling through walls,” he tells CityLab. “You can’t even have burglary without buildings. The very definition of a burglar is tied to the built environment.”
Sometimes, burglars deploy a sophisticated understanding of local infrastructure. In the book, Manaugh profiles one man who pores over Toronto’s fire code to decide what to target next. He also nods to an infamously unsolved bank heist that relied on the Los Angeles storm sewer network. “Those reveal that, if you think analytically about the spaces that surround you, and about how a space might be connected to another, you’re thinking architecturally,” he says. “You’re just putting it to use for criminal purposes.”
There are conventional ways of moving through buildings, Manaugh says, and architects often design buildings with that movement in mind. Burglars chuck that code. “A burglar comes along and says, ‘Look, I’m not going to follow the path that you, the architect, have laid out for me,’” Manaugh adds. But, of course, you don’t have to have sticky fingers in order to think of a building that way and explore new possibilities for moving around in it.
Funneling that kind of spatial curiosity into decidedly less felonious activities can work for both architects and homeowners, Manaugh says. “Rather than create some sort of medieval fortress, you can actually make a really elegant and interesting response to the challenge of knowing that someone might try to break into the window on the ground floor, and you don’t need to just put bars in front of the window,” he says. “There’s an architectural solution to that.” Landscaping choices can eliminate blind spots around buildings. And inside, Manaugh adds, features such as sliding paper doors offer a responsive design that gives you the flexibility to change how you interact with space. “It’s an interesting and engaged way to use architecture,” he says. And it’s legal.
Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic,New York Times, Modern Farmer,Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.