A burgh is simply a town, usually with some kind of protection or fortification. Think also of a castle, a court or a manor house — and the related noun borough. In native English a burgh-breche was a break-in, now contracted to burglary, “The crime of breaking (formerly by night) into a house with intent to commit felony” (OED), and the term was usually applied to a house, a domicile, a residence, a place of habitation.
These definitions bring burglary under the purview of architecture. Burglary is in the company of theft, arson, robbery, vandalism, invasion and other crimes affecting person and property, but burglary puts the focus on inhabitation.
At least that is the proposition advanced in the interesting book A Burglar’s Guide to the City by architectural theorist Geoff Manaugh. He introduces the theme by recounting the history of George Leonidas Leslie (1842-1878) a Cincinnati trained architect who turned to robbing banks, mostly in New York.
Build and burgle
As described by Manaugh, Leslie’s approach to burglary was inventive, and even theatrical, demonstrating a clear understanding of place and space. He would create replicas of the places he and his gang intended to rob in order to leave little to chance, a scenario delivered in many heist movies:
“Pirates of space-time, dressed in opera costumes, picking bank locks and assembling duplicate vaults in abandoned Brooklyn warehouses, Leslie’s gang and their astonishing success rate set a delirious precedent for future burglaries to come. Leslie thus became both burglary’s patron saint and architecture’s fallen superhero, its in-house Lucifer of breaking and entering. His darkest accomplishment, however, was hardwiring crime into architectural history, making burglary a necessary theme in any complete discussion of the city. Burglary is the original sin of the metropolis. Indeed, you cannot tell the story of buildings without telling the story of the people who want to break into them: burglars are a necessary part of the tale, a deviant counternarrative as old as the built environment itself (11-12).
To view a place as a burglar might indeed provides new ways of looking at the city and its architectures, and has the potential to influence urban design, not least as we consider how to prevent burglary. To provide some continuity with my post last week, I’ll focus briefly on burglary as it pertains to repetition.
Oversharing your habits
I’ve already examined the relationship between habitation and habit, the repetition of daily activity cycles. Manaugh refers to home-owners’ “rhythms of vulnerability” (263). Most home-owners know about the risks of leaving a place unoccupied, and have simple electronic timers that turn the lights on in the evenings while they are on holiday.
You can even install a flickering light source that suggests someone has the television set on (faketv.com). Manaugh jokes that some residents forget to adjust for daylight saving time: “The house anomalously switches on every night a full hour too early, making it even more obvious that, for all the light and electricity, no one’s home” (129).
Then there’s the practice of “oversharing” on social media, by which anyone can easily deduce whether or not you are at home. There is (or was) a website to test such vulnerabilities called pleaserobme.com.
The Office of National Statistics in the UK produces annual crime figures. Criminals seem to be turning to online fraud as providing the biggest illegal returns (see Guardian article), though I don’t know if there’s a corresponding drop in burglaries.
- Hern, Alex. 2018. Cybercrime: £130bn stolen from consumers in 2017, report says. Guardian, 23 January. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jan/23/cybercrime-130bn-stolen-consumers-2017-report-victims-phishing-ransomware-online-hacking (accessed 17 February 2019).
- Manaugh, Geoff. 2016. A Burglar’s Guide to the City. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan).
- Manaugh makes an interesting observation about the rhythms of criminality and lunar cycles: “burglary can be correlated to the phases of the moon — as if crime has its own lunar tides — but this, in fact, is borne out quite regularly. The reason is simple: a new moon equals less light to be seen by, and thus an easier time sneaking around someone’s property or through an empty part of town” (124).