Learning Architecture Through 'A Burglar's Guide to the City’

An alternative method to teach about our built environment.

May 19, 2016

A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh.

Published in April of 2016.

How could you teach architectural design to someone who does not think that they are interested in architecture?

The answer may just be to teach them about how criminals go about breaking into buildings.

If you take this pedagogical approach, then A Burglar's Guide to the City would be the text to build your course around.

Is an understanding of the built environment part of the liberal arts canon?  Will the average liberal arts student take a course in the history, philosophy, engineering, design, and function of buildings?

In college my own interest in architecture and design was limited.  I would have been interested, however, in a course about breaking into buildings.

If it takes crime to teach young people about design, then maybe we should think about offering more cross-disciplinary courses in criminology and architecture.

In A Burglar's Guide to the City, Manaugh takes us on an historical tour of the intersection of building design and crime.  He tells stories of how bank robbers operate in LA, including some audacious heists that took advantage of long disused underground creeks and tunnels.  We learn about the “Mole Man” - a criminal who became expert at breaking into franchise restaurants and big box stores.  (It turns out that routinized operations - when the cash is moved from the registers to the vaults and how security people circulate - greatly aids the work of the thief).

Manaugh shows how breaking and entering specialists think about architecture differently than non-criminals.  They are expert at envisioning entrances where we only see walls.  A burglar is less likely to go through an existing door (as locks are timely to pick) when breaking through a wall is usually simpler.

Some of the best parts of A Burglar's Guide to the City are about the tools that high-end criminals use to breach walls and to tunnel through vaults.  The Broco Industrial Ultrathermic torch, operating at 10,000° F, may be designed for demolition - but will serve quite nicely when a safe needs to be opened like a can of tuna.

A Burglar's Guide to the City is an unusual book, in that it is as much about design as it is about crime.  The focus is on learning about building design by seeing architecture through the eyes of both the criminal, and through the perspective of the people in law enforcement charged with stopping crimes building related crimes.  This is not a lens on architecture and design that we normally peer through.

You will enjoy this book if you are curious about bank heists and art thefts, about panic rooms, and about helicopter police patrols in Los Angeles.

You will like this book if you wonder about how jewel thieves regard high rise apartment buildings.

Reading A Burglar's Guide to the City will depress you if you think that you can ever really make your home secure from skilled criminals.  You will be heartened, however, at the simple steps that you and I can take to secure our homes against crimes of opportunity.

Had I read this book during my own college years I doubt that it would have led to a life of crime.  A Burglar's Guide to the City, however, may have sparked an earlier interest in buildings, design, and the built environment.

What are you reading?



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