Monday 26 March 2012

Going to the Dogs: the Stade Municipal de Courbevoie

In two months time, the impressive municipal stadium at Courbevoie will be completely demolished. Requiem for a building that no-one seems to care about.

In the shadow of the La Defense towers, mechanical machines are busy transforming to dust and ashes a building that has been a feature of the Courbevoie landscape since the 1930s. I have never felt that it is my role on this blog to capture history before it disappears, nor am I someone who thinks that all destruction is a bad thing, but sometimes it seems important to ensure that there is at least one mourner at the funeral.

It will be a shame to see this impressive facade go, but the rest of the facilities have clearly been in a poor state for a long time. Replacing it will be the ultra-modern Cité des loisirs, an architecture which is perhaps more suited to a town that is now intrinsically linked to La Defense business district. And why fight to preserve this now off-white elephant when what will go up in its place will surely be of more use to the community today?

Before it is bulldozed away though, let us pay respect to a place that was once a highly fashionable society venue - during the golden age of dog racing!

The stadium was originally designed as a cynodrome, which - as well as being possibly my favourite French word - also brings to mind something much more refined than a 'dog track'. If press sketches from the time are to be believed, going to the dogs was also once the height of fashion in Paris. These pictures from the 1930s, shortly after the opening of the facility, show a thoroughly modern and comfortable environment with lounge chairs and carpets. Women and men in smart dress sip cocktails, before dining and taking in an evening of racing.

Whether these sketches were accurate or not is unclear (and interestingly there seem to be few photos of this period), but what is known is that the races were very popular. The stadium even had its own access point by rail, a basic station known as the 'Halte de Courbevoie-Sport' which transferred thousands of people to and from Paris on race nights.   

The Halte de Courbevoie-Sport has not been used since 1951, but the platforms still exist behind this walled up access point.
The golden age lasted for barely 15 years, either side of the Second World War. The cynodrome opened in 1936, branding itself as the 'most modern and most beautiful track in the world', with races organised on up to five evenings a week. Although the racing attracted members of the high-society, it was actually probably more popular with those struggling in the difficult years of the pre-war period, for whom it offered cheap entertainment and the chance for uncontrolled gambling.

As is the case with dog tracks the world over, it also attracted some interesting characters. Andre Obrecht, the last executioner in France, worked as a bookmaker at this track during a wartime pause in his activities, before then going on to launch an ice-cream company. As war ended, he quickly returned to his previous job, becoming the country's chief executioner!  

The cynodrome closed in 1951 after accumulating large debts, but it continued as a venue for other sporting events. The interiors were used as meeting rooms for local associations, but they never again attracted the fashionable to Courbevoie. More modern sporting facilities have now been built on the opposite side, and the venue continues as a home to rugby and athletics.

Note: although the Olympic rings are visible on the facade and can also be seen on gates to the rear of the facility, the stadium never hosted any Olympic events. The choice of this element in the design seems to come from the fact that the town of Courbevoie hosted the rowing event at the 1900 Olympics on a stretch of the Seine a few hundred metres from this venue.

Note 2: the local authorities originally planned to keep the art deco inspired facade, partly because they believed it was a listed building. However, after finding out that this wasn't the case, and after estimating the costs this preservation would entail, they eventually decided on complete demolition. In an interview with the Le Parisien newspaper though, the builder, GTM (Vinci group) promised to "récupérer des éléments du fronton, notamment les anneaux olympiques" (keep some of the elements of the facade, notably the Olympic rings). Where these will actually end up though is anyone's guess.


Tim said...

Puntastic title, Adam. Yep, remember going to the dogs there circa 2001-2002, although it was just an annual event by then rather than a more frequent occurrence. Can't say it was that charming an experience (although I did win a few euros on a fluke result).

The local sporty people must be gutted because it was a good place to go for a jog! Not sure the Cité des Loisirs will be quite so conducive to running, other than up and down between the rows of seats. Of course, another complex like that is precisely what the Parisian suburbs needed, isn't it? (Plus what was wrong with the existing Espace Carpeaux just a few metres away?)

Adam said...

As far as I understand it, the sporting facilities - track, rugby pitch etc - will stay, so local joggers should still stay healthy.

The Espace Carpeaux will also continue, so this small street will soon be home to three venues, each offering several hundred seats. Whether this is needed or not is a local debate, but nobody seems to have protested against the demolition of the current facilities.

Anonymous said...

I catch my bus in front of the former stadium and I was always curious to know about its history. Thank you for the article, I enjoyed reading it.

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