How to be a better burglar: Creeping around in buildings with Geoff Manaugh and Jeff VanderMeer

The author of "A Burglar's Guide to the City" says in newer buildings, a good shadow is hard to find

Published June 4, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Cary Grant in "To Catch A Thief"
Cary Grant in "To Catch A Thief"

I first met Geoff Manaugh years ago, through the amazing Bldgblog website, and I’ve always enjoyed his thoughts on architecture, use of space, and how it’s all relevant to the planet and to our lives.

When I heard he had a book out called "A Burglar’s Guide to the City," I knew I had to have it. I devoured it in a couple of sittings, fascinated by his tales of burglars, yes, but also the way in which Manaugh writes about architecture in that context. He’s changed my view of even very mundane spaces, and it’s not too dramatic to say that he often creates the same effect with his nonfiction as J.G. Ballard does with his fiction: expands and contracts space and time in your mind.

Which is to say, "A Burglar’s Guide to the City" isn’t just an entertaining and unusual book but also kind of trippy and at times metaphysical in its musings.

So it seemed like a good time to ask Manaugh some tough burglary-based questions, especially since he just had a related story optioned for film. 

Why do you want to steal people’s stuff? Or, maybe more accurately, why do you want to make it easier for your readers to steal stuff?

I don’t! In fact, luckily, my book is not about theft but about burglary—and there’s a really interesting difference between those two crimes. Burglary specifically requires architecture—that is, to be burglary, it has to occur inside a legally recognized structure, whether it’s a house or a houseboat, a telephone booth or a greenhouse—and burglary doesn’t actually require that you steal something. It’s a common misperception that burglary and theft are synonymous.

That might sound really vague, but look at the FBI’s definition of burglary. They define it pretty simply, as just “the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft.” But note that the felony, of course, doesn’t have to be theft; it could be any felony, like firing an unlicensed handgun. Or even—somewhat hilariously—tax evasion, which is a felony. Check fraud is a felony.

So I could sneak into your house and, if I have the intention of performing tax evasion there—or maybe I’m going to forge some checks or counterfeit my paystubs—then, technically and legally speaking, I am committing burglary. Or gambling is also a felony. So I could sneak onto your back porch, without your permission, and, while standing there in the shadows, forging checks, I place a bet on a football game. I’m a burglar.

Anyway, the reason all this interests me is that, as an architecture writer, someone who’s been writing about architecture and cities for more than a decade now, it’s just fascinating to me to think that the construction of architecture actually brings with it a whole new type of crime. Without architecture, burglary cannot exist.

Have you ever broken into a building? If so, what was that experience like?

I haven’t broken into any buildings, but I have always been intrigued by the back-corridors and maintenance rooms that exist behind the scenes, the places that make the world of public-facing architecture actually function. I love steam tunnels and fire stairs and loading docks.

In my book, I call these places the “dark matter” of the built environment, and at least two of the burglars I profile also explain that it’s these other parts of our buildings—the kitchens and janitorial closets and garbage chutes and rooftop elevator maintenance rooms and parking garages—that they’re most comfortable with navigating. You could say it’s the world of J.G. Ballard, not the world of Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of them—a guy named Bill Mason—wrote a memoir where he explains that he grew up with some pretty absentee parents, and thus spent a lot of time hanging out with building superintendents. They mentored him into the ways of how buildings really work, and he learned firsthand, from a very early age, that there’s always an unexpected, unseen way to get from one point to another. From the basement to the roof, or from the emergency exit to the door of someone’s apartment. That was architectural knowledge, in other words, that Mason could later draw on when he became a burglar.

Having said that, way back when I was a teenager, my dad moved into a new development in the woods of North Carolina that now has something like 900 houses on it—but he and my stepmom were literally the 11th or 12th people to move in. I spent a few summers running around on unpaved streets through the pine trees and climbing around at night through new houses under construction. I didn’t “break into” anything, but it was a great way to experience houses almost as x-rays, before the drywall went up, just empty skeletons of 2x4s in the middle of nowhere.

I broke into my own house because I needed a scene for a novel I was working on. Yes, I was kind of nervous, but there was an odd element of performance about it. Do you think that for some burglars the act is also a performance? That there’s an aesthetic to it beyond the practical aesthetics of a successful process?

That’s definitely part of it. Burglary can be a very theatrical undertaking, in fact, even down to pretending that you’re someone else so that you can talk your way into a building you’re not supposed to enter. One of the burglars I write about in the book even went so far as to steal costumes from the New York opera—this was back in the 1870s—in order to use those disguises when his gang broke into banks up and down the mid-Atlantic and in New England.

I also briefly mention some of the tactics used by FBI surveillance teams who need to break into a target apartment to install bugs or other listening devices. A lot of what they do involves disguises, misdirection, subterfuge. It’s stagecraft—it’s a performance—and, in fact, the name of the program, of all things, is Operation Stagehand.

A fair number of unsuccessful break-in attempts are documented, and there’s a curious affection for the unsuccessful in the tone of those passages. Do you have a fondness for the screw-ups?

Absolutely! They’re often the most interesting, precisely because they fail so badly. The book actually opens with a montage of burglaries-gone-wrong. There’s a nude teenager who got stuck in the air vent of a veterinarian’s clinic in Milwaukee, or the guy who got caught after dressing up like a plant to break into a mineral museum, of all things. You can’t make this stuff up. The failures are actually the rule, not the exception.

In fact, you’d be sad to learn how often burglars get busted for doing things like breaking into a house in the middle of winter: their footprints in the snow then lead the police right back to their own home or apartment. Or take the much more recent story, from just a few weeks ago, where a man robbed a restaurant but then knocked over a bag of flour on the way out. He stepped in the floor and left a trail of white footprints all the way back to his house.

They’re honestly not the brightest people—but, like extras in a Jerry Lewis film, that makes them no less interesting.

Do you have a favorite break-in artist?

The opening person I write about in the book is honestly pretty great. It’s a guy named George Leonidas Leslie—he’s the guy who broke into the New York opera who I mentioned earlier.

Leslie trained as an architect in Cincinnati before moving to New York in 1969. Once he got there, though, he saw a whole new world of potential for putting his architectural skills to use: he realized he could make an excellent burglar. Leslie conned his way into ritzy social circles and used his charisma and his familiarity with architecture to convince people to show him floor plans of their homes or reveal key details of their businesses, even down to bank vaults, and then he did things like construct duplicate vaults for his crew to train with, in a bunch of warehouses over in Brooklyn.

His story is pretty incredible, actually, and so many of the people who knew were larger than life. He worked with this woman known as Marm Mandelbaum, for instance, who was really extraordinary: she was a female crime boss in the middle of the 19th century, as well as the go-to fence for thieves even on the other side of the Atlantic.

In terms of other favorites, there is also a Toronto-based burglar who spoke to me under a pseudonym—he called himself “Jack Dakswin”—who really captured my imagination. Dakswin introduced me to all sorts of new techniques, like using the city’s fire code to plan which buildings he would break into next.

So I’d say that both of those guys are pretty indicative of the level of creativity and strategic thinking that you can find—but, again, they are the exceptions, not the rule. They’re not stepping in bags of flour and leaving trails of footprints back to their front doors.

In studying architecture and burglary, as someone who is an expert on architecture, what surprised you the most?

Honestly, I think the ease of it all—how easy it is not only to break into a building, or to sneak into a building, but also how easy, straightforward, commonsense decisions can help you protect yourself from these crimes. You know, don’t leave windows on the second floor unlocked—especially if someone can climb a tree branch and get onto your roof. Don’t post your travel or vacation schedule on the internet for everyone else to see, so that even strangers know when your house is empty.

The book is full of more tips like that, obviously, but it’s really just thinking logically about what a stranger might see. Well, it’s a little more complex than that, I guess. It’s just thinking logically about what a stranger might see—but then also imagining, at the same time, that it’s a very devious and crafty stranger who is hoping to gain illicit entrance to your home or office.

You have to think like the adversary. You have to look at your own home or apartment and ask yourself how you’d break into it.

Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that even the most successful criminals you document in your book are failures?

Well, cynically, yes—but definitely not literally. In fact, one of my favorite stories in the entire book is a still-unsolved crime from Los Angeles in the 1980s. There, a group of what was believed to be three or four men tunneled into a bank vault near the Sunset Strip, and they have still never been caught. In fact, it’s past the statute of limitations now, so they can’t be arrested, even if they show up at FBI headquarters tomorrow morning.

They were so good at tunneling, the FBI thought they might actually have been from the mining industry, and they knew so much about the city’s storm sewer network that another theory tried to connect them in some way to L.A.’s Department of Water and Power.

Although they tried an almost identical heist—in fact, two simultaneous tunnel jobs—a year later, they were interrupted before they could steal anything. So that, technically, makes them “failures.” But they actually got away with it. They succeeded. They could be reading this interview right now, drinking Coronas.

Does it concern you that the most perfect manipulators of architectural space for criminal enterprises we will likely never know about? That the brilliance of their break-ins and the nature of the crimes indulged in within a particular illicit space have rendered them invisible?

I would actually say that that is one of things I find so incredibly interesting about burglary. When you think about how we describe burglars—as mysterious figures at the periphery of the world, in alleyways, on rooftops, tucked away in air vents, removing objects and influencing our everyday lives without ever being seen—it’s at least rhetorically comparable to how we describe figures from folklore. Like demons, ghosts, or other supernatural figures.

In fact, before the bank was robbed in L.A.—the one I mentioned with the tunneling crew—the group managed to set off the bank’s alarm system a few times and even made the electrical system go haywire. As the FBI later discovered, it was because they had hooked up their concrete-coring machine to the bank’s own electrical supply, stealing power to make their tools work, but the bank employees, freaked out by the flickering electricity and the strange noises, started to joke that the bank had a poltergeist.

I love the fact that a supernatural haunting—an otherworldly presence menacing them from the dark side—was more believable than the possibility that burglars were assaulting the bank from below. Burglars are like figures from mythology, nameless creatures operating in darkness.

Has writing this book increased or decreased your own criminal urges?

[laughs] You know, it’s funny. I really came out of this book process with an incredible appreciation for the people who want to prevent this crime—with the police officers I got to shadow and the FBI agents I met and the retired New Jersey cop who is now a panic room designer.

I really learned from them that the moral and ethical stakes of burglary are severe, and not at all—what’s the word? It’s not a victimless crime. It’s a really devastating, emotional violation, to have someone else in your home or apartment, going through your stuff, taking things that mean so much to you and then selling it all for pennies on the dollar or even just throwing it away.

The panic room designer I mentioned—a guy named Karl Alizade—was particularly interesting on this. He had been so affected by the impact burglary obviously had had on the people he met while working as a cop that he effectively dedicated the second half of his professional career to trying to design something that would make burglary impossible. To design an absolute, trustworthy, unbreachable barrier. And I love that he actually put his money where his mouth is—he tests his panic room designs against Russian military equipment, including rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles.

For him, it’s a moral quest. It’s architecture in the service of ethics. I really like that, and I was impressed by that, even if it is incredibly easy otherwise just to dismiss this stuff—to roll your eyes at burglar alarms and panic rooms and home safes—as a useless form of paranoia catering to the ultra-rich.

So, no, then, I guess I would say that I did not come out of this looking to become a burglar! Even though I still really like heist films, and heist fiction—in fact, probably even more now, oddly enough.

But I want to circle back to my first answer here, just briefly, because what interests me about burglary is not taking things from other people. I’m not interested in that. What interests me here—and why I like heist films and why I wrote this book—is that there is a way to use architecture that is much more like trying to solve a puzzle, a giant 3D puzzle that you have always lived within but just never realized was a game.

In other words, how do you get from one room to the next? How do you get from one floor of a building to another? Is there a hidden way to get from your building to the building across the street?

These are fundamentally architectural questions—questions about buildings and cities about circulation and infrastructure, about floor plans and sections, about how we use the world and engage with it—but they’re also the plot drivers of heist films. They’re what make burglary so interesting as an abstract spatial concept. It’s about illicit or secret connections between points A and B.

I imagine a version of Geoff Manaugh who now wants to break into buildings in order to rearrange and redesign their innards to be more functionally or aesthetically pleasing to him. But what would the real Geoff Manaugh like to see change in architectural spaces, in relation to your research for this book?

Definitely; that sort of flexibility would be amazing. I’ve always admired traditional Japanese architecture, for example, with its sliding paper walls, where open space becomes solid and obstacles become openings with the flick of a wrist. And I’ve always really liked the avant-garde fantasies of groups like Archigram, who proposed infinitely rearrangeable interiors and “plug-in” cities and buildings where whole rooms could be plucked off and placed onto other structures, like grafting flowers onto new stems.

Actually, this might sound weirdly specific, but a lot of the book takes place in the shadows—which, of course, is a metaphor, but it’s also very literal. You hide in the shadows. You use shadows to evade discovery. But it’s funny: the trend toward glass curtain walls and open interiors, especially in new high-rises and office buildings here in New York City, often means that finding shadows can be unexpectedly difficult. We’re designing a world of constant sunlight, where finding a good place to hide is more and more of a challenge.

There’s obviously yet another metaphor hidden in there somewhere, but reading about these 19th-century cat burglars and burglars operating in medieval Europe and burglars walking the streets of ancient Rome, all of which I also cover in the book, made me really miss the darkness that used to come with architecture. The deep shadows of recessed windows, the unsettling gloom of interiors even in the middle of the afternoon.

If writing a book about burglary made me want to see one architectural change, it’s that, ironically, I’d like to see architects bring back shadows.

By Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of the New York Times bestselling "Southern Reach" trilogy and "Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction."

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