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Luckey Climbers are the ‘arena rock’ stars of children’s play structures

When the Irvine Spectrum Center’s $200-million expansion was unveiled last year, one of the more eye-catching additions was a Luckey Climber, the larger-than-life play structure that sits in a courtyard outside the 85ºC Bakery Café, Afters Ice Cream and Falasophy.

This Luckey Climber isn’t your average jungle gym. The structure is 18 feet tall and 49 feet wide. It has horizontal, white metal helixes on top with vertical silver curved pipes supporting it, and underneath is a sea of 75 bright yellow and green hyperbolic-paraboloid-shaped climbing platforms — which is a fancy way of saying they look like Pringles.

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And it’s all encased in a netting of vinyl-coated cables.

“To me, it looks like it’s underwater in a weird, futuristic cartoon forest,” says Spencer Luckey, the architect behind Luckey Climbers. “It’s big enough that it can be a little microcosmic universe that allows kids to get immersed in there.”

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As well as the adults, who are often zipping in and out of the structure’s crevices, watching their kids climbing high above them.

Luckey Climbers, based in Connecticut, has been around since Spencer’s father, the late Thomas Luckey, founded the company in 1985. Of the 104 climbers that have been built worldwide, seven are in California, including one in Carlsbad, which just opened last week, and another opening in spring in Porter Ranch.

Each Luckey Climber has a unique design created specifically for each location. The one in Philadelphia is meant to mimic the inside of a brain. The one in Belfast, Ireland, is inspired by a Celtic dragon. And the one in Los Mochis, Mexico, is inspired by a Medusa jellyfish.

The tallest Luckey Climber, at Gyeonggi Children’s Museum in South Korea, towers at 53 feet 4 inches.

But the reason these grandiose play structures remain safe for kids is because they all abide by Thomas Luckey’s original guiding principle: If kids can’t really stand up, then they can’t really fall down. No drop is more than 20 inches.

“The idea that something, because it’s for kids, has to be dumbed down seems completely antithetical to me,” says Luckey. “I’m also at odds with the idea that a piece of playground equipment doesn’t have to appeal to adults, because adults have to hang out with this stuff for years … We have the opportunity to make something that adults can be charmed by and kids can be enraptured by.”

When Luckey was a kid, his father’s woodshop was in the living room. He jokes that he “grew up sleeping in sawdust.”

“[My father] just liked to make weird stuff, and he found that adults didn’t have the stomach for it,” says Luckey. “He designed a weird staircase that turned into a slide, balconies that turned into walls. He was obsessed with hand-powered merry-go-rounds.”

Luckey, like his father, graduated from the Yale School of Architecture, but taking over Luckey Climbers wasn’t initially part of the plan, nor was it a smooth transition.

Some of the challenges were depicted in the 2008 documentary “Luckey.” During filming, Thomas Luckey was adjusting to his new life as a quadriplegic — he had shattered his cervical vertebra after falling from a second-story window — and Spencer Luckey was trying to help save his father’s company.

What the younger Luckey brought to the table was computer technology skills that allowed them to experiment with “weirder geometry and a new level of expressionism.” Before, the elder Luckey relied on physical models, which didn’t allow much room for iteration and experimentation.

“It loosened up a lot of other possibilities,” says Luckey. “Like, why are the pipes straight; why can’t they be curvy?”

Even though the film depicted their first successful creative collaboration, it ended with an onscreen update that Thomas Luckey had fired his son from the company.

“[My father] and I used to fantasize that the company he and I would operate would be called the Arguing Men,” says Luckey. “We just fought like crazy, but we accepted that as part of the [process] … He cared a lot about it, I cared a lot about it, and it was great in that way.”

Before Thomas Luckey’s death in 2012, father and son had reconciled, and Spencer Luckey has been at the helm ever since.

He recently finished a climber in Bali, Indonesia, and is currently working on a climber for the San Diego Zoo.

“We used to be like a little band that played at the bar around the corner, then we started playing medium-sized venues, and now I think we’re doing arena rock,” Luckey says of installations in malls like Hawaii’s Ala Moana Center, which attracts 48 million visitors a year.

Uneasy about the responsibility that comes with being called an artist, Luckey prefers to think of his climbers as entertainment.

“I try not to get too esoteric,” he says. “I try to keep it simple.”

There was only one time, he admits, where a subtler artistic intention made its way into a Luckey Climber.

When Vice President Mike Pence was governor of Indiana in 2015, he signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed businesses to discriminate against the LGBTQ community for religious reasons.

At the time, Luckey was working on a project for Indiana’s Greenwood Community Center: a climber that surrounded a staircase

“I did some experiments with helixes, thinking I could combine [right-handed] and [left-handed] helixes,” he remembers, referring to the directions in which the helixes spin. “And then I thought, ‘What if I combine a righty and a righty to get another geometric reality, and then make a chain in the sense that they’re wedded?’”

He also added multicolored dots to the platforms, “kind of like a deconstructed rainbow.”

Luckey doesn’t think anyone noticed his intentions in a way that would make the Greenwood climber an effective work of political art. But he’s not interested in being subversive.

“At the end of the day, I always go back to, ‘Is it cool-looking?’” he says. “I think a lot about first impression because kids aren’t going to go running toward something they don’t have a good first impression of.”

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