Everybody who has worked with Fred Holt loves Fred. For a start he dresses really well and has impeccable manners. He also merges his native Californian charm with Danish design precision through projects for 3XN where he is a partner. In a world of architects concerned more with how things look than how they work, 3XN’s pragmatic approach that ‘accentuates the necessary’ has landed them some formidable projects re-designing significant waterside sites here in Australia where being next to the harbour is next to godliness.

On a bitterly cold day, Fred and I tried to make it look like we were enjoying our walk around ‘the block’ which was really all of Circular Quay and we discussed the joys and sorrows of developing on the waterside.

Could you explain the two biggest projects that you are working on in Sydney at the moment?

The two most significant projects we’re currently working on in Sydney are obviously Quay Quarter Tower and then the new Sydney Fish Market, both of which are near or on the water. Working around water is both a positive and a daunting experience.

How did you feel as an international practice winning these two projects in Sydney, both on the water’s edge which is sacred ground in Sydney, so to speak. Did you feel vulnerable or that there was this big job to be done interpreting what it is that Sydneysiders like about their waterfront and how it is that they use it? 

I think as an outsider, we might actually find what we call quintessential Sydney. I don’t want to say ‘exploit’, but we might be able to perhaps enhance that experience because to us the quintessential Sydneysider experience is the possibility to interact or be at the water’s edge.  If you’ve grown up around it, you might take certain things for granted, so it’s almost reminding Sydneysiders of this great asset that they have in their city. Maybe it’s simple, but in both Quay Quarter Tower and the Sydney Fish Market we always talked about this indoor/outdoor lifestyle in Sydney, which is as much about the near perfect climate as it is actually being on the water’s edge.

I think coming in with a certain naivety about a place allows you to remind the people that you are designing for about what they actually have. We weren’t bogged down with local or typical expectations, as in, what can and can’t get approved. We just designed around constraints, around flow and around program and we let that inform the design. Then intertwined with all of that is this indoor/outdoor city foreshore experience. So, I think as an outsider you can look at it differently because you are not playing into local norms. Instead, we allow the user experience to be guided by a flow that intertwines constraints, program and context to create an architecture that shapes behaviour in a positive way. You’re not worrying about what’s been said or not allowed previously. You just go for it.

“I think coming in with a certain naivety about a place allows you to remind the people that you are designing for about what they actually have.”

Would you agree with the statement that in Sydney the citizens feel as if they are entitled to the water’s edge… that it is a public asset?

I think more and more they’re feeling entitled to it, not just the beaches, but the actual foreshore of the CBD and I encourage that. I think citizens of a city, Sydneysiders as with Copenhageners, need to feel entitled, they need to feel they can approach any part of the city and engage with it. The Water’s edge used to be an industrial part of the city, it wasn’t very enticing. But, walking along the water’s edge, like walking through a garden, can be quite soothing, and should be encouraged. It’s a place to relax, typically, it lets your mind wander.

So, you feel entitled for a reason which is that you want something. You’re suggesting that the reasons why people want to be close to water are to do with a very primal need to connect with nature and the restorative benefits of that?

That’s part of it and I also think just being at the edge, sitting at the edge, you can’t go any further, so you might as well, stop, sit and contemplate what’s beyond or engage with it.

When we or others talk about designing near the water and it only focuses on views, at that point we’re no longer engaging with the full user experience. With our Fish Market design, we have an elevated promenade which provides those sorts of views back towards the city and over the fishing vessels which activate the harbour, but more importantly, we want our building to act as an extension of the proposed promenade along the foreshore. This is where you’re going to have that quintessential Sydney foreshore experience. That’s where the building’s focus should be. It should be a focus on that experience on the edge and not just the views.

I think a lot of your practice’s designs seem unfussy. It’s beautiful, simple and strong, but you never think ‘oh, that’s just a trick’ or a folly.

Correct and I think that we take a lot of pride in allowing the identity of our architecture to actually come from those projects’ constraints and parameters. I think that is what makes our firm unique. We never talk about the building just in terms of form. You can’t rely on winning competitions just by form alone. We have to please everybody in the end, the developer, the city, the program, the flow, the context. So, without those elements of the design process all you’re doing is form. We like to think of our design as informed design not just form and that is not how every architect approaches the process.

So you’re saying the challenges are an integral source for the building’s end-form. It must be beautiful and functional. It can’t just be functional, and it can’t just be beautiful.

That’s right. We need to accentuate the necessary. We need those elements so why not make them an integral part of the design and actually allow that to help inform and shape the identity of the building.

So, you are on this transition from being an outsider to Sydney to being an insider because you now live here. Are you trying to protect your outsider point of view? I pride myself on not being qualified to be in the property industry because that outsider’s perspective creates permission to poke the bear or whatever it is that you can’t do if you are reared or weaned on the property industry. For you, do you feel like you’re personally in this position where you need to be careful to not become too much of a local?

I think every outsider eventually needs to understand their context a bit more and when we approach a project as an outsider, we might see things in a way that a local doesn’t, or has forgotten how to. But, in the end when you work on projects you do need to understand the local context to develop and take the project through to completion. But, it’s a very interesting question because I do think it’s important to maintain some distance. Despite having relocated here, it’s really important that I continue to go back to the home office in Copenhagen to reconnect, making sure that 3XN in Australia is always attached closely and linked with 3XN Copenhagen. You’re right we don’t want to lose that 3XN identity and I don’t think we will.

We approach design by saying architecture shapes behaviour. It takes some time for people to understand that, but that mantra, that idea can carry over from Copenhagen to Sydney or Copenhagen to New York where we also have a small practice. So, it really is about trying to make sure that wherever we open an office, that mantra, that office ethos is always present, and I think when we do that, you never lose sight of where you came from.


“just being at the edge, sitting at the edge, you can’t go any further, so you might as well, stop, sit and contemplate what’s beyond or engage with it.”


Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development.