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Committing Crime Is Just Another Way To Use A City

For criminals, architecture is the ultimate abettor, writes Geoff Manaugh in A Burglar's Guide to the City.

Committing Crime Is Just Another Way To Use A City

Photo: Flickr user sfreimark

Before they knew his name, they called him Roofman. He would cut holes in the roofs of chain stores and fast food restaurants—usually a McDonald’s—then drop down through the ceiling to rob the startled employees.

Geoff Manaugh's A Burglar's Guide To The City (FSG Originals) is available on Amazon.

Sometimes he’d come in through the back wall, slipping in through a hole of his own making, only to pop out in the kitchen or storeroom; but it was mostly the roof and so the name quickly stuck. The employees he held up were usually teenagers paid minimum wage working the morning shift or wearily closing up shop for the night, getting the day’s take ready to be counted. They didn’t have much to gain from trying to stop Roofman from doing his job; the risks of being a hero seemed to outweigh the potential gains. In any case, Roofman was known for his gentle demeanor, without fail described as polite—in one oft-repeated example, even insisting that his victims put on their winter coats so that they could stay warm after he locked them all in a walk-in freezer.

An official spokesperson for McDonald’s offered perhaps the simplest explanation of the ongoing crime spree: Roofman was just "very brand loyal."



But there was more to it than that. Hidden inside the repetitive floor plans and the daily schedules of these franchised businesses, Roofman had discovered a kind of criminal Groundhog Day: a burglary that could be performed over and over in different towns, cities, and states, probably even different countries if he had gone international, and his skills—his timing, his movements—would only get better with each outing.

For Roofman, it was as if each McDonald’s with its streamlined timetable and centrally controlled managerial regime was an identical crystal world: a corporate mandala of polished countertops, cash registers, supply closets, money boxes, and safes into which he could drop from above as if teleported there. Everything would be in similar locations, down to the actions taking place within each restaurant. At more or less the same time of day—whether it was a branch in California or in rural North Carolina—employees would be following a mandated sequence of events, a prescribed routine, and it must have felt as if he had found some sort of crack in space time, a quantum moment stuttering in a film loop without cease, ripe for robbing. It was the perfect crime—and he could do it over and over.

Flickr user James

Noted designer and architectural theorist Bernard Tschumi would call the predictable repetition of events inside an architectural space a sequence: a linear series of actions and behaviors that are at least partially determined by the design of the space itself. Tschumi’s idea rests on an architectural truism: that, for example, you probably wouldn’t convene a weekly congregation inside an underground parking garage. Why? Because it’s designed for parking cars, not for prayer. Or you wouldn’t graze a herd of cows inside a church.

Traditionally, a building gives clues as to how it is meant to be used—thus all those empty, perfectly car-size parking spots. Buildings call for certain behaviors—even if their spatial demands are often so subtle that, at first glance, we don’t realize we’ve been obeying them.

Tschumi’s larger point is that if the design of a space or a building tends to influence what occurs within it, then the role of the avant-garde designer is to push past this, to find new ways of challenging or disrupting architecture’s behavioral expectations. Why not graze cows inside a church—or at least design barns to look like churchyards?

Tschumi began to explore this notion through what he called screenplays: each "screenplay" was a black and white diagram breaking down a range of events that might occur inside an architectural space. Tschumi drew them in a way that resembled dance notation or the spatial analysis of a film scene. How do the people move, he wanted to know—how do they respond to one another or to the props scattered around them in space? Where do the actors stand during key moments of narrative drama?

Tschumi believed that this was all part of the scenography of architectural design, and the ultimate visual results of his explorations ended up looking a lot like football-strategy diagrams—a comparison he himself has made—featuring abstract geometric shapes that tracked the movement of people past one another and through the rooms around them.

Flickr user Yuya Tamai

Fair enough. But what does this have to do with burglary? For Tschumi, what we think of as a "crime" typically occurs when a user of architecture does something radically out of sequence, breaking with the pattern that a building might imply for example, sneaking past security at an airport to board a plane without following the traditional sequence of approach, entering the vault of a bank without first being granted the manager’s permission, or, to cite a recent real-life example, jumping the fence outside the White House to enter the president’s home by the back door. These are crimes of sequence. They are crimes of space.

Tschumi, writing in the late 1970s, at a time when American cities were falling apart, the Bronx was on fire, and New York City as a whole seemed on track to become the Mogadishu of its day—a city not to settle in but to escape—became obsessed with crime. Crime, for Tschumi, was just another way to use the city. Looked at in a specifically architectural context, crime reveals how people try to use or misuse the built environment. Criminals are more like rogue usability experts, analyzing architecture for shortcuts, hiding spots, and other spatial tricks. As Tschumi once wrote, "To really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder"—a statement he accompanied with a photo of someone being pushed out the window of a tall building. The building itself would be an accomplice to the crime.

In a way, Tschumi was simply pursuing the interests of an architect to their logical conclusion: he wanted to know how people use cities and inhabit space, whether it’s walking up New York’s Fifth Avenue or plotting a murder in Central Park. Indeed, such a murder is the scenario he turned to next with a project called The Manhattan Transcripts. Now something of a cult classic among architecture students, The Manhattan Transcripts diagrams a fictional murder in Central Park, implying that the crime could be used to reveal previously unknown or repressed forensic insights about how people really want to use the city, whether or not what they choose to do there is legal. For Tschumi, the murder mystery was as architectural a genre as any other.

For all Tschumi’s obsession with crime and space, however, he chose to write about murder rather than burglary—despite the fact that the latter is the ideal spatial crime, literally defined by its relationship to architectural
space. A bank heist or an apartment burglary—not a fictional
murder in Central Park—would have been a much better fit for Tschumi’s narrative goals. Imagine for a moment planning a heist on the 34th floor of a New York City high-rise, or plotting a burglary in a popular art museum. These require sequential thinking, elaborate timetables, and precise plans of action that purposefully and strategically differ from the events that are officially—that is, legally—allowed to occur there. Heists and burglaries are the ultimate Tschumian crimes.

Sorbis via Shutterstock

Tschumi—Swiss-born and still working internationally—currently lives in New York City. On a blazingly hot summer day, he talked to me about these old explorations of his, looking at the strange inflection point where avant-garde spatial theory imperceptibly blurs into a criminal plan of attack. This is where a burglar’s guide to a building becomes an alternative form of architectural criticism, I suggested; burglars simply look for different shortcomings, vulnerabilities, and weak points in the design.

Tschumi didn’t disagree—but he wanted to back up a bit, concerned that the phrasing of my question risked making burglars into heroes or role models. "For a long time," he said instead, "my chief interest had to do with cities in general, and the extent to which an entire city could be transformed by an act of creative misuse. I was fascinated by the role of insurgency, for example, from the 19th century, or in the 1960s with the student movements, or even in Northern Ireland, with what was happening in Londonderry and in Belfast. I was interested in how people with a particular intent could take over certain parts of the city with an action that could transform the way the city was used." Motivated individuals or groups, he observed, could use "the complexity of the city against itself," uncovering the possible behaviors that a building or space unintentionally allows, then adapting them to stage a protest, overthrow a government, demand political representation, or, yes, simply to commit a crime.

Tschumi became quite animated as we discussed this, taking me back to his original idea of the transcript or architectural notation. Traditional architectural representation, he emphasized—such as sections sliced vertically through a building to show what’s happening in every room, or floor plans used to explain how each room connects to all the others—lacks the ability to communicate events in time. It’s much more difficult to make an architectural drawing of a riot, a revolution, or a bank heist—but not impossible.

For Tschumi, this inability to represent events in space remains a fundamental weakness in architectural thinking today. The goal of his earlier work had specifically been to find a way for architects to reliably visualize the events that might take place inside their spaces; but it never became an accepted technique, just an art project, a series of avant-garde posters and drawings.

In these sorts of crimes, Tschumi pointed out, the architecture is always involved. In every heist film, he said, "The vaults and corridors and elevator shafts are just as important as the characters in the story; one cannot exist without the other. The space itself becomes a protagonist of the plot. There is no space without something that happens in it; and nothing happens without a space like this around it." The same thing is often true for grand public plazas in the hearts of cities: these can be used as nothing but picturesque backdrops for tourists to take photos of each other or as insurrectionary platforms for starting a revolution. It’s all about how you use the city—or misuse it, turning the fabric of the city against itself.

In fact, one of the most spectacular art heists of the last decade is thought to have succeeded precisely because of a flaw in a museum’s architectural design, which inadvertently allowed the general public to study the internal patterns of the security guards and visitors. The Kunsthal in Rotterdam, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA, was robbed in the middle of the night back in October 2012; seven paintings were stolen, including works by Matisse, Gauguin, Monet, and Picasso. Ton Cremers, founder of the Museum Security Network, an online forum, put some of the blame for this on the building itself: the museum’s expansive floor-to-ceiling windows offered a clear and unobstructed view of many of the paintings hanging inside. More important, they also allowed a constant, real-time surveillance of the internal workings of the museum for anyone passing by—the patterns of visitors and the comings and goings of the guards were effectively on public display. Thus thieves could have sat outside in a nearby park, watching until they found the right moment to strike. The museum had its own internal rhythm of events that the burglars interrupted with a perfectly timed counter-event: the heist. This is the rhythmic spacetime of burglary.

I thought of Roofman. In his case, this sort of Tschumian analysis would translate into using a business’s internal timetable against itself: when managers and security guards walk their rounds, for example, or when employees change shifts. For that matter, I suggested aloud, just think of all the hundreds of film scenes in which bank robbers are shown clicking a stopwatch the instant they burst through a bank’s front doors, knowing that they only have a certain number of minutes—even mere seconds—to get the job done before a security response. They uncover and then misuse the existing schedule of the bank’s security to help them commit their crime.

This article was adapted with permission from A Burglar's Guide to the City.

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