B a c k p a g e
Vertical Challenge A ‘perfect mess’ at Children’s Museum of Houston by Edward Richardson
Photos by Paul Finkel of Piston Design
My four-year-old niece, Jocelyn, compares them to “those pads that frogs jump on” and likes to imagine herself as some sort of energized amphibian as she climbs, leaps, and hops her way to the top. Her description is in reference to the new climbing installation or “climber” at the Children’s Museum of Houston’s recently completed expansion (by Jackson & Ryan Architects). The climber, designed and constructed by Spencer Luckey, frames an almost constant ingress of squealing, gleeful adventurers as they navigate the varied vertical pathways rising from the basement level of the addition. Boasting more than 70,000 linear feet of cable, 120,000 ring connectors, and 130 levels, the intricate assemblage plays a central role in the new exhibition space at the museum. Experientially, the installation supports two contrasting modes of vertical circulation for children and adult observers. The children’s sequence spirals up 30 feet through a web of curved plywood disks, leaning steel columns, and steel cable netting. The climbing disks, conceived by Luckey as a series of abstract silver dollars suspended in mid-air, are clad with an underbelly of mill-finish aluminum. The metal surfaces reflect natural light down to the basement from the large exterior windows, as well as assume, in a chameleon-like fashion, the purples and blues of the surrounding ambient lighting. A parallel sequence for adults allows parents to visually track their child’s progress through an integrated switchback stair. Toward the center of each run, the stair layout swells to offer more space for parents to stand and observe while not creating traffic jams. This successful balance of fun, function, and beauty epitomizes much of the unorthodox design work of Spencer Luckey and his father, Tom Luckey. Based in New Haven, Conn., the Luckeys are both trained as architects and over the past 20 years have developed their own unique niche market providing innovative climbing sculptures to children’s museums across the nation. From design to engineering and fabrication, the structures represent both the challenges and rewards of designing what Spencer Luckey refers to as “a perfect mess.” Edward Richardson lives in Austin where he works with Miró Rivera Architects.
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