Leitmotif II

Examining ‘A Burlgar’s Guide to the City’

“It’s the sort of book that is 100x more valuable to people who have a few other fertile connection angles like Infosec, Scott/legibility stuff, deleuze/guattari smooth-striated stuff, general interest in territoriality politics etc,” wrote Venkatesh Rao, of Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City.

It was this description that caught our eye and piqued our interest in Manaugh’s book. This article, however, is less a review and more an exploration of the type of connection Rao mentions — specifically the parallels with Manaugh’s book and the essays written by and interviews of IDF leaders conducted by Eyal Weizman (which we have written about on this blog a few times before, most notably in the first article in this three-part series, found here).

The reference to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari jumped out at immediately as Shimon Naveh, a friend and someone who’s work we follow, has mentioned them heavily — in militarizing their concept of the rhizome for instance, but more particularly in the effect the application of their distinction between smooth and strained spaces has had on framing tactical and operational problems for Naveh and the IDF officers he teaches.

It came as no surprise when I later discovered that the book has a section dedicated to Eyal Weizman, who examined the IDF operations in Nablus in 2002, where Naveh’s approach was put into practice most quintessentially.

Even before coming to that chapter, however, I was struck by how similarly the book approached architecture to Eyal Weizman’s outstanding book, Hollow Land, which examines in depth the ‘architecture of occupation’ used by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Hollow Land highlights how architecture in the occupied territories, infrastructure, urban planning, defensive and security systems, etc. all harmonize to facilitate the policies of the occupation (and the work by Weizman that Manaugh cites became a chapter in this book). Manaugh even highlights similar efforts at influence, whether it is numbering and categorization systems to enable police in Los Angeles or the scenic boulevards of Paris, the consequence of a policing project under Napoleon III. The idea that the design of a city and of the very buildings within it can be used to control human beings is also very much at home with Manaugh’s observation that a structure or a city’s design determines its crimes.

The idea of space controlling behavior leads to another reference shared by Naveh and Manaugh — Bernard Tschumi. Manaugh writes,

“Tschumi’s larger point is that if the design of a space or 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 the architecture’s behavioral expectations….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 fist 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.”

Naveh discusses Tschumi with Weizman as well: “The idea of disjunction embodied in Tschumi’s book Architecture and Disjunction (1994) became relevant for us…Tschumi had another approach to epistemology; he wanted to break with single-perspective knowledge and centralized thinking. He saw the world through a variety of different social practices, from a constantly shifting point of view. [Tschumi] created a new grammar; he formed the ideas that compose our thinking.”’

Weizman goes on to quote Aviv Kochavi, a student of Naveh and Brigade Commander during the aforementioned attack on Nablus, describing this grammar in the particular case of that operation as ‘inverse geometry’, “the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions.” Naveh also uses the term ‘fractal maneuver.’

In his introduction, Manaugh is more specific, “In one sense, burglars seem to understand architecture better than the rest of us. They misuse it, pass through it, and ignore any limitations a building tries to impose. Burglar’s don’t need doors; they’ll punch holes through walls or slice down through ceilings instead…Burglars seem to exist in Matrix space, a world where…not only is there no door, but there are no walls, roofs, or ceilings. Burglary, in this sense, is a world of dissolving walls, and pop-up entryways through to other worlds (or, at least, through to other rooms and buildings)…For the burglar, doors are everywhere. Where we see locks and alarms, they see M.C. Escher.”

This language is echoed by Kochavi:

“This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is: how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place, like every architect and every town planner does, to walk through, or do you interpret the alley as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do…This is why that we opted for the methodology of walking through walls….Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. We were thus moving from the interior of homes to their exterior in a surprising manner and in places we were not expected, arriving from behind and hitting the enemy that awaited us behind a corner…I said to my troops, ‘Friends! This is not a matter of your choice! There is no other way of moving! If until now you were used to move along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!’”

[See this article by Naveh, which quotes Weizman, but provides more detailed discussion about how the attack was/would have been discussed]

Weizman also brings up Gordon Matta-Clark, using his term ‘un-walling the wall’ in describing future technologies that will no doubt be an essential part of future urban operations. Manaugh’s chapter ‘Tools of the Trade,’ which focuses on both the equipment to take apart, or reconfigure, architecture as well as the efforts to prevent such action, ties the handiwork of these tools in more than a superficial way to the art of Matta-Clark.

A few other connections worth mentioning stand out. Any work touching the realm of security should reference Bruce Schneier, and Manaugh does, even if briefly.

But more notably, I will be forever indebted to the author for coining the term Nakatomi Space, in a reference to the movie Die Hard, which Manaugh describes as “one of the best architectural films of the past three decades” despite being “disguised as an action film.” 
Funny, I have always thought of it as a Christmas movie, but no matter.

Manaugh recounts the plot — how NYC cop, John McClane, while visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles, is caught up in the terrorist seizure of the building where she works during the office Christmas party. Manaugh then goes on to describe how McClane, “moves through a high-rise building called Nakatomi Plaza, in what seems to be every conceivable way but passing through its doors and hallways. He traverses the tower via elevator shafts and air ducts, crashes through windows from the outside in, and shoots open the locks of rooftop doorways. If there is not a corridor, he makes one; if there is not an opening, there soon will be. McClane blows up whole sections of the building; he stops elevators between floors; he rides on top of them instead of in them; and he otherwise moves through the internal spaces of Nakatomi Plaza in acts of virtuoso navigation that were neither imagined nor physically planned for by the architects.”

Manaugh continues, “Indeed, McClane’s actions reveal a new type of architectural space altogether — a topological condition we might call Nakatomi space, wherein buildings reveal near-infinite interiors, capable of being traversed through all manner of non-architectural means, with their own exhilarating forms of boundless fluidity.” Again, Manaugh hints at M.C. Escher.

The discussion of this space also uses Weizman’s terms in describing the Nablus maneuvers — ‘walking through walls’ and ‘infestation’, and it is no coincidence that these two ideas, the inverse geometry of the Nablus attack and Nakatomi space, appear consecutively in the same chapter.

Save for the lengthy legal discussion in Chapter 3, which slows and dries the book out a bit, it is an excellent read that ties seamlessly into the themes we have written about before.

Re-framing how one views the architecture of a building or city seems at core to be the same exercise as ‘building snowmobiles,’ but with a different emphasis. Boyd’s process is one of destruction and creation, analysis and synthesis. The snowmobile model captures both of these aspects, but always seemed to me be focused more on the second aspect, the creative process. Rather than the ability to see the ‘relevant bits and pieces’ through the noise and combine them in novel ways, the type of re-framing discussed here seems focused on the destructive aspect (Tschumi’s emphasis on disjunction stands in contrast to unity, synthesis, and harmony for example) — destruction not only in the physical sense of tearing through walls, earth, and ceilings, but in tearing down pre-existing conceptions, redefining concepts in opposite and counter-intuitive ways (the wall as a door, the alley as a place forbidden, etc.). What is most valuable about Manaugh’s book is that it provides a much more accessible way to approach and understand this second aspect.

But the book has much more to offer, so we must pass on Rao’s recommendation, pick it up.

Part III of this series will follow conceptual trail laid out by Manaugh to practical “how to” detail via another book.