There's a dramatic proposal in Cuba to restore one of the island's most important architectural landmarks, and it's rekindling a 50-year-old controversy. At the center is one of the great stars of ballet, Carlos Acosta, who left Cuba and went on to a lead role in London's Royal Ballet. Mr. Acosta wants to return to the island and refurbish an abandoned Ballet School with help from one of the world's most famous architects. But the proposal has opened old wounds from Cuba's past and stirred a debate about the future of its state-sponsored cultural model. Nick Miroff has the story from Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: It began with a round of golf. The year was 1961. The players were Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, two young bearded revolutionaries who were now running Cuba. After hacking their way through a local course as a press stunt, Castro was inspired. He approached a young Cuban architect he knew named Selma Diaz with an idea for the elegant Havana Country Club he'd recently seized.

SELMA DIAZ: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Fidel said to me: I want you to build the best art schools in the world. I want something totally unique, he said, that doesn't look like anything else. Diaz recruited the best young Cuban architect she knew, Ricardo Porro, and within months, he and two Italian colleagues were bulldozing the bunkers and sand traps where PGA stars had played just a few years earlier. Their plan called for five distinct public art schools, with designs every bit as radical as Castro's revolution.


MIROFF: Venetian-born architect Roberto Gottardi still has the original sketches to his design for the National Theater School in his small Havana apartment. He had arrived to the island four months earlier and barely spoke Spanish.

ROBERTO GOTTARDI: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: All of the houses of the county club members were vacant because the owners left the country, says Gottardi, who is now 85. So, the students took classes and lived in the abandoned mansions while we built the schools, he says. It was a time when anything seemed possible. Castro gave them an unlimited budget and total freedom - at first. But as Cuba drew closer to the Soviet Union, the campus and its avant-garde architects came under fire. The schools' curving, sensuous lines and breast-shaped domes became a scandal. Soviet architecture, with its blocky shapes and cheap, pre-fabricated materials, was the new standard. Here's Havana architect Mario Coyula.

MARIO COYULA: At the beginning of the revolution is was not a nice thing to be labeled as an elitist that didn't care about costs, didn't care about function, didn't care about social issues; just about beauty and glory, personal glory.

MIROFF: Construction halted on the project in 1965, with just two of the five schools completed. Cuban architect Porro left the country soon after. The Italian architect Vittorio Garatti was jailed in the 1970s and expelled. His Ballet School had been left 90 percent complete, only to be converted into a circus academy, then permanently abandoned to looters and the creeping tropical foliage.


MIROFF: Walking through the Ballet School today is like exploring a lost city. It's a spooky place, swamped with mud and debris from the nearby river that floods the ground floor. Animals and neighborhood boys come and go as they please. But the school's original structures are intact, a dazzling swirl of red brick shapes and huge dome-like Catalan vaults set against the lush green jungle. The winding corridors, stairways and sight lines come together in a cascade of twists and graceful curves, like ballet turned to stone.


MIROFF: A contrite Fidel Castro said in 1999, it had been a mistake to leave the schools unfinished, promising to complete the job. It didn't happen. His government started the renovations, then ran out of money, and the project was abandoned yet again. But after another lost decade, someone else has stepped forward.


MIROFF: This is a clip of Carlos Acosta dancing with London's Royal Ballet. Acosta is the living embodiment of Castro's socialist mission to make elite culture accessible to all. Acosta grew up in a poor Afro-Cuban family with 10 siblings and learned to dance at a state-run academy. He went on to Cuba's National Ballet, but it wasn't until he left the island in the early '90s that he became an international star.


MIROFF: Acosta is now preparing to retire, and unlike many other prominent Cuban artists or athletes who have left the island, he wants to return and give back. He's proposing to renovate the abandoned Ballet School with millions raised abroad, turning it into a global dance and cultural center he'll run as the head of a non-profit. The legendary British architect Lord Norman Foster has drawn up the blueprints, and authorities in Havana have embraced the proposal. Miguel Barnet is one of Cuba's top cultural officials.

MIGUEL BARNET: We have to wipe off the bureaucratic mentality that things that come from abroad are bad, or poisoning. Not at all. Well-meaning people like Carlos Acosta, like, who knows, many medical doctors, I don't know, many artists, painters that are famous, they don't live here any longer but they love their country. They can help, and they can contribute to development of our cultural life, our daily cultural life.

MIROFF: There's a slight problem with Acosta's bold plans for the Ballet School. Vittorio Garatti, the original architect, is still alive. He's sent a letter to Fidel and Raul Castro saying Acosta's plan is a dangerous step toward the privatization of the school. Other architects in Havana are upset that Lord Foster would potentially alter Garatti's design without his consent. Again, Mario Coyula.

COYULA: You have to accept that 50 years have gone by but the changes should be done by the architect who was in charge. If this architect is no longer able, this is another thing. But the last time I saw Garatti, he was thinking clearly. So, there's no reason to put him aside. I don't think it's ethical.

MIROFF: Garatti is in Milan and Acosta is in London and neither seems close to working out a compromise. Acosta has even suggested he'll take his plans elsewhere if he doesn't get his way in Cuba. It's now up to Cuban officials to work out a solution benefiting the next generation of dance students for whom the ruined Ballet School is not a symbol of the moment when Castro's revolution carried so much promise. To them, it's just a ruin. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.


SIMON: And to see pictures of Cuba's abandoned Ballet School, you can visit This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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