Bank Heists in a Porous World

Geoff Manaugh

Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City (FSG Originals) is a nonfiction look at more than two thousand years of heists, break-ins, and escapes. His book approaches the city the way a burglar would, with an eye for vulnerabilities and blind spots. Here, Manaugh reflects on two fictional heists that present many of the same themes developed over the course of his reporting.

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In The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, a 1960 film directed by John Guillermin, we meet an American bank criminal named Charles Norgate. The character first appears in the imposing lobby of the film’s eponymous financial institution, a rambling labyrinth of arches, stairways, and marble floors in the center of London. There, in the bank’s entry hall, Norgate finds himself standing face to face with a bust of Sir John Soane, the building’s architect—both in the fictional universe of the film and in real life—when a security guard approaches out of a mix of caution and curiosity. “Nice building,” Norgate says with a grin—a joking start to a long process of casing the place.

What ensues is a meticulous tunnel job aimed at the very heart of the British economy: the gold vaults of the Bank of England. Although the nation’s gold is apparently secure behind two-foot-thick steel doors under the constant gaze of armed guards, the vaults actually sit within a nest of spatial vulnerabilities. Norgate, our plucky American, soon ingratiates himself with the bank’s security supervisor. They have drinks in the officer’s study and even picnic together in the countryside.

Norgate pretends to be interested in architecture in order to wheedle his way into the bank’s voluminous archives, where he can learn more about the building’s layout. The floor plans Norgate uncovers there—and later steals with the help of accomplices—serve as the technical basis for assembling a detailed scale model of the bank, pieced together in the groups’ attic hideaway. Standing over the spires and walls of this financial microcosm like malign giants, Norgate and his crew talk through and argue about various lines of attack. “There’s a fault in it somewhere—there’s got to be,” Norgate mutters, the plans of the bank now spread before him across the table. When one of the gang suggests simply dynamiting their way into the vault, Norgate loses his cool: “Listen!” he shouts. “You don’t get into these vaults with dynamite. You think your way in.” It’s a film about maps, plans, and models, not explosives and gunfire.

Norgate soon takes an interest in London’s famous lost rivers and decides to pay a visit to the city’s Sewage Commission Records Department. London, of course, has substantial, roaring subterranean waterways, buried long ago for reasons of sanitation but nonetheless still flowing freely beneath the streets. One of these old rivers, the Walbrook, has been turned into little more than a trickling sewer—but, Norgate realizes, it now flows directly beneath the bank. He has found his way in.

The group’s tunneling project commences; it is construction not as an act of creation, but one of breaking and entering. In a particularly ingenious detail, the sudden, unexplained disappearance of the bank’s basement rat population makes the security supervisor increasingly paranoid. “They’ve been there for two hundred years,” he stammers, clearly imagining that if these vermin have found a way out, then perhaps something—someone—has found a way in.

In fact, the disappearance of the rats suggests an interestingly inhuman approach to burglary, where a prospective criminal could look for and take advantage of the same paths an animal might use to enter a structure from an adjacent building. Recall, for example, that the architectural getaway route depicted in the film Escape from Alcatraz is only accidentally revealed to the film’s protagonist (played by Clint Eastwood) because of a simple cockroach. The bug’s presence suggests that there must be other, deeper, unpatrolled ways of moving through the building and that those spaces have remained unnoticed. If you can think like a roach or a rat, these two films together imply, then you can learn to move through architecture with an uncanny degree of spatial freedom.

In any case, while The Day They Robbed the Bank of England does not have much worth recommending in terms of acting, dialogue, or character development, it is noteworthy nonetheless for the extent to which it presents its heist narrative as an explicitly spatial act of urban investigation. Historical layers of the city come into play as routes into and out of an otherwise impregnable bank vault; the city’s hydrological infrastructure takes on an unexpected secondary use as a new way to cross the city without being seen from the surface; and even Norgate’s communion with the bust of Sir John Soane suggests that his plans for infiltration are an inherently architectural undertaking.

Although fictional, tales like this are almost impossible to resist while writing about or researching real-life crimes of breaking and entering. They represent the spatial imagination freed of all constraint—and willfully contaminated by the dark side. For every idiot burglar arrested in a convenience store somewhere in Middle America, there is a cinematic super-thief rappelling down into recessed vaults or carving holes through shadowy catacombs to loot tantalizing piles of gold. These sorts of stories are escapist in the best possible sense: a mythologization of breaking and entering that, precisely because of those tales’ exaggerated proficiency, reveals something of the heist’s strange appeal.

Of course, it’s also worth noting that Norgate’s break-in is not just figuratively but literally underground: that is, the vulnerability that his break-in both uncovers and ultimately relies upon is a subterranean one. It is a crime of stratigraphy, we might say—an intervention in the stack of the city.

Here, another fictional super-heist comes to mind, from an author not exactly known for writing them. A brief scene in Cormac McCarthy’s 1979 novel Suttree suggests that it’s not just a bank vault, or even all of the gold upon which the British economy rests, but an entire city that might be geologically susceptible to burglary.

In Suttree, a character named Gene Harrogate—Norgate, Harrogate—becomes fixated on the possibility of robbing every bank in Knoxville, Tennessee. He wants to do so simultaneously and from below. Harrogate somewhat deliriously points out that Knoxville is a city built atop limestone, a rock known for, among other things, the deep, craggy, and extraordinary caves its long-term erosion can produce. Beneath the sidewalk is not a beach, as the Situationists would have us believe, but a malformed topology of wormholes and illicit shortcuts.

Fancying himself a man of action, not a philosopher, Harrogate begins “to tunnel toward the vaults underground,” McCarthy writes, “where the city’s wealth was kept.” He crawls through “stone bowels whereon was founded the city itself,” stumbling here and there upon lost bits of urban infrastructure. These are the roots of the city, a subterranean region of “ruptured ducting and old clay drains.”

When, by coincidence, a local delivery truck breaks through the road surface, partially falling into an empty cavern below, Harrogate has an epiphany. In an unfortunately all too short exchange with the novel’s protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, Harrogate takes this event to its logical, burglarious conclusion. What if it hadn’t been a truck, he asks, but a building that fell through? What if, he asks, imagining the city’s entire downtown held in delicate suspension above a void, it had been the vault of a bank?

Harrogate is drunk at this point—“waving his bottle about,” in McCarthy’s words—fantasizing about buildings crashing down into the earth like rain. “What about a whole block?” he asks. What if the entire city just fell into the darkness like a sinking ship—and Harrogate could be waiting there, ready to rob it? He could just pick through the ruins of ruptured vaults, broken upon the rocks of the city’s nether regions.

“That’s the spirit,” Suttree says, goading him on.

Harrogate has discovered, in other words, that the foundations of the city—the foundations of the world—are not built upon solid ground but upon an untrustworthy maze of sinkholes and unmapped caves. Nothing is solid. Nothing will stand forever. The earth, for all intents and purposes in Harrogate’s mind, is hollow. What’s so peculiar and interesting about this moment in the novel, however, is that for Harrogate, the revelation does not inspire philosophical self-doubt or existential unease, but a desire to rob banks.

What both of these fictional heists have in common is the idea that beneath the surface of the city, there is an unlit world of connection that needn’t only be appreciated for its aesthetic or metaphoric value. This world beneath the world can be used.

Rather than fear, or even poetically fawn over, the fact that an invisible subterranean switchboard links point A to point B—the entrance to a sewer leading to a bank vault, the crawl space of a cave shortcutting straight to the heart of your city—you can instead build a plan around that.

You can, if you’re Norgate or Harrogate, use these vulnerabilities to move from space to space in ways that seem almost supernatural, popping up from below where guards would least expect you or positioning yourself just right to watch the world’s impending collapse.

For these characters, the realization that their seemingly solid and trustworthy world is, in fact, deeply and invasively porous is emboldening rather than a source of anxiety.

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Read Geoff Manaugh’s Top Fifteen Heists of Cinema and Literature.

Geoff Manaugh is the founder of BLDGBLOG, one of the most acclaimed architecture sites on the Web. His book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, is out now from FSG Originals.


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