HAVANA – In a country where money is perennially tight, it might seem a fantastic gift: A celebrity ballet star pledges to raise millions of dollars to rescue the ruins of an architectural masterpiece abandoned in mid-construction five decades ago in his native Cuba.
Instead, Carlos Acosta's plan to inject life into the island's hidebound ballet scene by refurbishing Havana's crumbling dance school and turning it into an international center for culture and dance has ignited controversy for daring to reimagine the original architect's vision.
Acosta, who was in Havana this past week for meetings with Culture Ministry officials and to raise awareness about the project, was visibly frustrated by the flap over what he views as a way to give something back as he prepares to retire from London's Royal Ballet after a celebrated career.
"I don't need flowers anymore. ... I came from nowhere and I have so much," Acosta, 39, told The Associated Press on the grounds of the ballet school Friday.
"What I can tell you right now is: I look at this building, it's nothing. It's been like that for decades, and one day it's going to collapse to the ground."
Set in a leafy district of western Havana, the school is an eye-popping labyrinth of wormlike corridors, graceful arches and majestic domes. It was designed by Italian architect Vittorio Garatti as one of five adjacent arts complexes personally requested by Fidel Castro, who dreamed of building the world's finest art school on the golf course of a country club seized by his revolution.
Construction began in 1961, but as Cuba increasingly embraced Soviet-style communism and the functionality of Lego-like prefabricated architecture, the project was criticized as bourgeois and elitist. Work was abruptly halted in 1965, with the ballet school lacking only windows, doors and floors.
"That would have taken 15 days, because the material was all there," Garatti told the makers of the 2011 documentary "Unfinished Spaces." ''And then, well ..."
In the mid-1970s the main theater was repurposed as a circus school, but mostly it has been left alone amid hostile surroundings.
In 1999, Fidel Castro said he regretted that others had persuaded him to halt construction and vowed that the five art schools would rise from the ruins. But funds fell short after the campuses for painting and sculpture and for modern dance were completed, and the schools for ballet, drama and music were in limbo once again.
Today, weeds and small trees sprout from the ballet school's brick rooftops. During severe storms a nearby creek jumps its banks and cascades through the cave-like halls, caking them with mud. Food wrappers and cigarette butts litter a bathroom with no fixtures, most of the tile stripped from the walls. "I love you, Angel," reads a graffito scrawled on a high wall.
Enter Acosta, who enlisted British architect Norman Foster to help raise money from private donors for the project. A benefit last month yielded some $320,000 in pledges and enough promising leads that Acosta's people feel confident they can hit their $10 million target.
But the involvement of Foster, whose renown and ties to the global financial world are a huge boon for fundraising, has alarmed some people who fear Garatti's original design could be overwhelmed. Foster is famous for his expressive glass-and-steel re-imaginings of historic structures like the dome of Berlin's parliament building and the courtyard of the British Museum.
Garatti, who did not respond to an AP email seeking comment, reportedly wrote a letter to Fidel and Raul Castro complaining that the international project risked "privatizing" the school in a society where the state has been the dominant patron of the arts for 50 years.
Garatti has defenders in Havana's cultural and architectural community who debated the plan in public forums and private email chains.
"I would be very happy if there were a work by Foster here in Havana, but not sitting on top of the work by Vittorio," prominent Cuban architect Mario Coyula said at a July meeting called to discuss the controversy.
"The main worry is an ethical problem, which is, to be clear: Is Foster going to take over the project, or will it continue to be Garatti's?" Coyula added, according to minutes of the gathering published by the Cuban cultural magazine La Jiribilla.
Coyula called for a definitive plan to be made public so people can judge the project on its merits rather than on rumor. At the same time, he urged Garatti to recognize that some change is inevitable after a half-century.
In town for the Havana Ballet Festival, Acosta tried to drum up interest in his campaign during meetings with officials as well as with local and international media.
He emphasized that he and Foster are committed to remaining faithful to Garatti's design, and said the center will support an estimated 80 to 100 jobs even after construction finishes. The master plan has not been finalized, but Acosta said the modifications it envisions are minor, like repurposing classrooms as student dorms and expanding the main theater's capacity from 200 to 540.
Such changes are necessary for the center to take in money and be self-sufficient, according to Acosta and his partner on the project, Rupert Rohan. It would be a British-registered nonprofit with an independent board to administer the center in partnership with Cuba, which would retain ownership of the landmark building.
If that differs from the Communist government's traditional role as the principal supporter of the arts, Acosta noted that the Culture Ministry is on board and has signed a preliminary agreement.
"Someone has to pay for everything. And (the government) can't," Acosta said.
Tensions remain. While giving an interview to a reporter Friday, Acosta was interrupted by an indignant man who engaged him in a heated exchange about respecting Garatti's creation. Acosta has apparently been unable to soothe Garatti's objections, though he insists the Italian will still be involved.
Timothy Hyde, an architectural historian at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, said the ballet school and the other four arts campuses posed fundamental questions about Cuban identity and citizenship after the Cuban Revolution, including what should a new Cuban architecture look like.
Hyde said the debate over one of the island's top 10 landmarks of the 20th century therefore has unfortunately been framed as a stark choice — leave the school as is, or bring in Foster to create something entirely new.
"Both seem to kind of fix the building in amber," he said.
Ultimately island authorities will have the final say on the dance center's fate. But Acosta, who lives in London, has made it clear that while Cuba is his first choice, he's prepared to shop his performance center project around.
"My greatest desires are to achieve this project in Cuba," Acosta said in an open letter responding to Garatti's objections, "but I could just as easily do it in another country, for example: England."
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi