Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Burglar's Guide to the City: a very short review

My life-long interest in architecture dates back to my college years in Chicago.

Chicago, of course, is well-known as a hotspot of architectural thought and innovative buildings, and has been thus for more than a century; the city is often given the title as "Birthplace of the Skyscraper."

But it was a happen-stance selection of "Introduction to Architecture" as an undergraduate that lit some spark in me that has stayed alive ever since.

At some point, years ago, I stumbled across Geoff Manaugh's fascinating BldgBlog web site, and immediately became a loyal reader of his always-fasinating essays.

So it was pretty-much a "no brainer" that when Manaugh decided to write a book, I was one of the first on the pre-order list, and hence I found myself reading A Burglar's Guide to the City this spring.

Although this is his second time doing so, writing a book is clearly a bit of an experiment for Manaugh, who is better known as an essayist, a magazine contributor, and a lecturer. On his blog, his essays are lavishly illustrated, filled with hyperlinks to additional resources, and occasionally are interactive; all of these techniques are a luxury not easily available on the printed page.

But I do not wish to be nit-picky: Manaugh is a fine writer, and in Burglar's Guide he has a fine story to tell.

Manaugh's approach is to weave a modern story through a historical context, and he does it well, interleaving anecdotes about famous historical characters such as George Leonidas Leslie and Bill Mason with descriptions of state-of-the-art questions such as the use of helicopter-mounted forward-looking infrared cameras in urban law enforcement, or the accuracy of level design in the espionage-oriented video game series, Thief.

It's all, actually, quite a bit more interesting than I've made it sound, and it helps that Manaugh is good at moving the story along.

So, is this a book you'd be interested in?

Well, you can certainly decide for yourself, but if it helps, you might consider whether you find the following paragraph tedious and stale, or intriguing and startling.

Anyone's geographic understanding of a city can be profoundly improved when given access to an aerial view - when the city is laid out below you like a diagram - and this is all the more true when your job requires you to survey the city from above, imagining getaway routes and potential hideaways, possible next turns and preemptive roadblocks. The officers have uniquely unfettered access to a fundamentally different experience of the city, in which Los Angeles must constantly be reinterpreted from above with the intention of locating, tracking, or interrupting criminal activity. This perspective reveals not only over-looked connections between distant neighborhoods but distinct possibilities for committing - or preventing - crime on a city scale. Police helicopters also come with special optical technologies, often borrowed from the military, including dynamic-mapping software and forward looking infrared cameras. Seeing the city through this literal new lens can be transformative.

I suspect that Manaugh's fascinating, though quite laser-focused, perspective on the world is likely to remain mostly a niche taste, appealing mostly to oddballs like me who enjoy that funny space where architecture, geography, technology, and social studies intersect, forming a distinctive perspective of: "my, look at the unusual way that we humans have constructed this strange world we live in."

Still, I hope that Manaugh's work finds a wider audience, over time, for he is certainly an interesting fellow with quite interesting things to say.

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