“I can’t tell you much yet, but there’s been an art theft,” says an RTV Rijmond Reporter. In a matter of hours, the news had reached International Shores. It was the early morning of October 16th, 2012. The prestigious Kunsthal Museum has been robbed.
For a while, it was speculated that the generous visibility of priceless artworks from the streets might have enticed the burglars. While that may be a theory, it was clear that they took advantage of the confusing layout and the fire staircase lock that was meant to release after pressing down on the door.
A different way to look at the world
The occupation opposite to that of an architect is a demolisher who knocks buildings down. But there is another possibility: what if the opposite of an architect was a burglar?
Architects work to create a sense of safe enclosure, a managed separation between a protected interior realm and the threats of the wider world, and a sense of redoubt, homeliness, and security in both its psychological and practical senses. A burglar’s invasion breaches this feeling of refuge.
Burglary is the dark side of Architecture. We react very differently to break-ins as compared to other crimes. Although the burglars are breaking the law, we can’t help but admire how they got in without using the door, came through the ceiling, or burst through the floor. Architecture is used in a way no one imagines. Designing a building without imagining possible ways to break into it is impossible. Architects are not the only ones studying the built landscape. George Leonidas Leslie is one such sinister example. He used his architectural knowledge to study the blueprints and layouts of the banks. He also made life-sized replicas of the safes and practised breaking them. It is no wonder that trusting people a hard luxury to come by.
Perception of the built environment
Misusing their environment, dissolving or demolishing hindrances, and ignoring obstacles are just some tactics in their playbook. They do not abide by the normal architectural behaviour taught in schools. For example, the front door is seldom preferred. Some popular choices include a neglected attic window, a tree next to a window, an ignored back door, and a broken fence. It is intriguing how some get in, never having used the door, by entering through the ceiling or bursting up from the floor.
Sometimes, they target the Achilles’ heel, unguarded fire staircases, elevator shafts, and even air conditioning units. Manholes and subway entrances may go unnoticed by most casual observers, but burglars spotlight them. Interesting ornamentation outside an old building would be admired by most for the design, the historical references, or how accurately it depicts flowers or tree branches. A burglar would consider them convenient handholds to scale up to the second or the third floor. A beautiful old doorway is seen as a place to hide. Some daring ones like Joe Loya hide in plain sight; in a car outside the front gate of the bank they looted.
Help can present itself in unexpected ways. Freeways that cut across cities are conducive to crime. It’s not just buildings that burglars see; differently, it’s the city as a whole. Los Angeles is known as the bank robbery capital of the world in the 1990s, with a heist occurring every 45 minutes. An unanticipated consequence of the then newly planned freeways in the city was the setup of businesses like banks or other cash-intensive at the bottom of an exit ramp or the entrance of an entry ramp. This functional infrastructure was a blessing for both the citizens and potential burglars. They gave rise to a new form of crime called the ‘stop-and-robs.’ Crime had become convenient.
Confusing layouts, whose side are they on?
Some neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, such as Hollywood Hills, have unfamiliar layouts that confuse the criminals who rob and the police who pursue them. The LAPD has officially stated that the neighbourhoods are meandering and narrow, making it hard to see the corners. It makes it hard for both parties to decide which way to turn for fear of being caught in a dead-end street. The victor of this chase is the one who beats the puzzling maze.
Prison systems often prefer this strategy while plans are being designed. For example, the Metropolitan Detention Centre in downtown Los Angeles is a built form of perplexity. Built in a V shape across the site, it is almost impossible to maintain a sense of direction while walking within. An inmate’s built-in compass will keep wavering, making it impossible to distinguish north from south. Escape is never an option, not even a remote possibility.
Their environment defeats some; others laugh at the system they beat and may even go ahead and write books. The built environment may be designed to keep them out but is often turned into an accomplice. Burglars are superheroes of the dark side. They may be the antithesis of builders, but even so, they are the real architecture critics.
Manaugh, G. (2016) A Burglar’s Guide to the city. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Naomi Stead, Associate professor (2022) The burglar as architectural critic? The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/the-burglar-as-architectural-critic-66031
What burglars can teach us about architecture – ABC News. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-11-15/what-we-can-learn-about-architecture-from-burglars/8024122
The Art of Stealing, nrc.nl. Available at: https://www.nrc.nl/kunsthal-en/