The immediate reaction to Tesla Cybertruck revealed on Thursday is that it looks hideous. But just three days later, after taking a breath, we can begin to tease out the big transformative message spelled out in the Cybertruck’s cold-rolled, stainless-steel, bulletproof exoskeleton. There’s a context to Franz von Holzhausen’s design. A quick look back on the architectural movement known as Brutalism reveals that the Cybertruck has a singular goal: to obliterate the automotive status quo.
The term Brutalism derives from the French phrase for raw concrete, “béton brut.” Brutalism was born in Sweden in the late 1940s, picked up by young English architects, and fully brought to life by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who coined the phrase. While the name refers to the use of raw concrete, it can be applied to any material that’s presented for its raw beauty — including steel.
What’s important now is understanding the philosophy behind Brutalism in today’s context — as an uncompromising honesty and an impulse to disregard tradition, fluff, and conventional bullshit compliance marketing.
The Cybertruck is intentionally ugly. The mood boards in Franz’s design studio must be plastered with images of Brutalist buildings, many of which were built in the aftermath of World War II. “The experimental architecture took hold in cities shattered by the endless bombings and fighting,” wrote Elle Decor, three months ago, in a piece about the return of Brutalism. The goal was to “repopulate entire neighborhoods under a new constructional vocabulary.”
The art book publisher Phaidon a year ago released the Atlas of Brutalist Architecture. Its description of the Brutalist philosophy could easily apply to the “radical reimagining” of automotive technology and design.
There is something to be said for artistic radicalism of any kind. The postwar period, with its urgent need for housing projects and public buildings, permitted the construction of elaborate geometric sculptures that didn’t look like any previous architecture. It was a time of radical imagining, a time when the past looked awful. Who would want an architecture respectful of tradition when tradition had led to the death camps and Hiroshima? Only the future held promise of improvement.
And who wants to return to the respectful tradition of internal combustion? Tesla sees F-150-style internal combustion as not just needing to be electrified, but for its form to be shattered.
The Cybertruck is not the first Brutalist automotive design intent on disruptions.
As Blake Z. Rong, writing for Hagerty, explained a year ago, the 1980 Citroën Karin “embraced the capital-W Weird component of the Brutalist aesthetic.” He described it as “almost literally a pyramid on wheels, a child’s drawing brought to life at the 1980 Paris Motor Show.” The Cybertruck’s design receives the same criticism.
Then, of course, there’s John DeLorean’s DMC-12, which also used sharp angles fashioned out of big slabs of stainless steel. The DMC-12 also promised a shockingly low price (that was never realized).
The application of the wedge design to an EV comes full circle when you consider the 1970s golf-cart like CitiCar, borne out of the era’s fuel crisis.
As a cultural phenomenon, Brutalism is in the middle of a comeback. Hundreds of thousands of always-on millennials see the oddly shaped raw-concrete building as perfect Insta fodder. After a generation of tastemakers called for the demolition of Brutalist buildings as eyesores, there are now campaigns (like #sosbrutalismo) to save those artsy buildings. Von Holzhausen is undoubtedly aware of these trends.
Dezeen, the high-end design publication, reported in May that “architects grieved” as London’s Welbeck Street parking garage was demolished. “I love its sharp geometry and alien appearance,” said photographer Jo Underhill, who captured the structure. “For me, Welbeck is totally innovative and a unique piece of architecture that will be sorely missed. Its design lifts it from a functioning car park to an iconic building that should be celebrated and cared for, not torn down, and added to the long list of Brutalist structures that are being gradually removed.”
Another design publication, Italy’s domusweb, perhaps best captured how the Cybertruck represents a watershed moment in automotive design and the EV movement. It’s an act of deliberate provocation against “the conservative masses of genuinely American pickup truck drivers who don’t live in their culturally sheltered East- and West-Coast bubbles.” And to think that the Cybertruck was unveiled just four days after Ford tried to remake EV design in the form of its venerable Mustang.
This week drew new Trumpian lines in the EV movement. Ford wants to make cars great again, even if they are battery-powered. But Musk and von Holzhausen have no patience for nostalgia, instead unveiling a futuristic pickup that can handle “abundant stray bullets and drive a load of canned meat to your apocalypse shelter in the middle of the soon-to-be post-nuclear desert.”
The Cybertruck is the most uncanny car Tesla ever unveiled. By proposing this design, which rummages for inspiration from pop culture products involving dark and dystopian views of the future, the company is basically buying into a much bleaker vision of the society of tomorrow. Instead of another round, curvy, and streamlined car, Musk is proposing a sharp and extremely aggressive design meant to scare away more than reassure. If until yesterday Tesla’s vision of the future could be framed as a Jetsons-like idyll, now we’re quite sure it’s a Mad Max with evil AI overlords that Musk had in mind all along.
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