In 1961, when Italian architect Vittorio Garatti was 34, he received the chance of a lifetime, the commission to design two of the five National Art Schools in Cuba. And now at age 85 he realizes that indeed the project has occupied most of his life, in the efforts to bring the building to completion.

“We were so inspired when we began the Art Schools,” he reminisced during my recent visit with him in Milan. “Cuba had decided to promote the revolution through culture to the Third World, and we were ready for that! We [Ricardo Porro, who designed two more of the schools, and Roberto Gottardi, who designed the fifth] started looking for a new language that would break away from the restrictions of glass and steel and concrete boxes. We didn’t have a big budget, and we loved architects like Gaudí and Frank Lloyd Wright—I had just gone a few months earlier to the U.S. to see his works. Brick was our answer, and curves. The Catalan vaults proved an economic way to span the structures, while sinking them partially into the site and leaving lots of open clerestories to give them natural light and climate control.”

In the background of our conversation in Garatti’s apartment, a mural painted by a friend, Giuseppe Mallia, covers an entire wall; it depicts Wright and Gaudí meeting around a table with Garatti, his wife, and their friends, all dressed in Baroque attire, while behind them looms a vision of the domes and fanlike clerestories of the schools.

Tucked into the slopes of a large public park that once served as an exclusive golf club, the National Art Schools might at first appear like relics of a remote civilization. The sensuously curving layouts of their serpentine wings climax in a multitude of protruding ribbed domes. Like Dogon villages in Mali, each school wraps around itself to enclose irregularly shaped social spaces.

Until the American architect John Loomis got there in the early 1990s, the schools remained one of Cuba’s best kept secrets— for some a great treasure, for others a matter of shame. In his ground-breaking book, Revolution of Forms, Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), Loomis uncovered the thorny history of the projects that led to their abandonment and demise. As Garatti told me: “We believed we were being absolutely functionalist, but also saw the schools as a sort of 1001 Nights, with the water trickling through their courts like in the Alhambra. I remembered going up on the rooftops of Milan after the bombardments of World War II and feeling such a profound sense of freedom, so we particularly wanted to use the roofs as places for dancing and music to provoke the students toward revolutionary cultural breakthroughs.”

The buildings recall the idealistic megastructures that Paolo Soleri began to design during the same years, and in their organic patterns they show a certain affinity with Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophic community in Dornach, Switzerland, built in the early 1900s. The young architects eagerly sought out the avant-garde Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, and studied African vernaculars, before composing their unconventional swirling volumes. Garatti still cherishes these impulses and has a copy of one of Lam’s Expressionist works fixed to the ceiling in his Milan loft apartment.

During the early 1960s, as the Soviet presence in Cuba increased, new ideological and economic agendas took hold. “We had all sorts of problems, shortage of materials and bureaucratic snags, as can be expected,” Garatti says, “but we were really progressing nicely—my Ballet School was 95 percent finished—until the big break between Mao and the Soviets, whom he accused of being revisionists. That was around 1963 and by the next year or so construction halted, and we had no choice but to conform to the state’s changed priorities.” As a true believer in the revolution, Garatti has always demonstrated feelings that mix personal regret for the fate of the schools with public solidarity for the progress of the revolution.

Meanwhile, through the ministry of construction, the influential local architect Antonio Quintana launched a vindictive campaign against the schools in the name of orthodox Modernism (as well as Marxism). Before going into exile in 1966, Porro succeeded in completing the School of Modern Dance and the School of Plastic Arts, but the other schools succumbed to the ravages of neglect, the onslaught of tropical flora, an unwieldy river, and, at a later stage, outright looting. Loomis’s photographs taken in the early 1990s show the structures wistfully engulfed by jungle foliage.

Quite rarely does a book on architecture change history but, in this case, if Loomis had not drawn international attention to the schools, they may well have languished until their ultimate ruin. Despite earlier official condemnations of them as “decadent” and “bourgeois,” Fidel Castro and the Cuban Ministry of Culture by now felt obliged to recognize their heirloom buildings, and within a few months declared the schools “protected landmarks” (in 2010 they became National Monuments and the campus has since been advanced to candidacy as a World Heritage Site, after being included on the World Monuments Funds watch list in 2002).

Garatti told me that “thanks to Loomis’s book, they called us back to Cuba.” He added: “I prepared all of the technical data we needed to work on the restoration and completion of my two schools. It was tragic to see how damaged they were, but you know, when people are so poor there’s not much that can hold them back—they literally ripped off tiles and bricks for their own houses.”

This poverty also influenced the hasty plans, first conceived in 2001, for the restoration, which were unfortunately executed with limited funding and dubious standards. The interventions were overseen by a Russian-trained local architect with the improbable sounding name Universo García, who, while clearing away the wild undergrowth of the site, severely damaged the picturesque park. According to Italian restoration specialist Michele Paradiso, who has undertaken detailed studies of the campus, “most of the structural additions and material choices of the new work have had a negative impact on the originals and will need to be corrected.”

Things seemed destined for a bad end until a new chapter in the fate of the Cuban Art Schools opened late in 2010. Carlos Acosta, Cuba’s Billy Elliot, who progressed from break dancing to become the star of the London Royal Ballet, announced the establishment of a foundation in his name that would restore and improve the Ballet School, with the added plum of the participation of Norman Foster. I can think of few contemporary architects whose work seems so antithetical to the low-tech originals, yet Foster’s name no doubt adds luster to the project in the effort to raise funds.

The principal backer so far, Hong Kong businessman David Tang, seems the likely liaison with Foster’s office. He is no stranger to the situation: One of Tang’s companies, the Pacific Cigar Co., is the major purveyor of Cuban cigars in Asia, and he has been granted the status of honorary Cuban Consul in Hong Kong. While Acosta initially acknowledged the original architect of the project, he probably did not expect him to be such a sprightly 85-year-old. The dancer now often describes the project without reference to Garatti, which would be like considering the Buena Vista Social Club without including Compay Segundo.

The dancer and the architect met in London in December 2011, when they signed an agreement with the Cuban Minister of Culture that recognizes Garatti’s “authorship” over the project but that appears to hold little weight at this moment. Foster + Partners are now referred to as the project architects.

Despite Garatti’s efforts to communicate with Foster’s office, his letter of inquiry as to how the ideas of the original architect would be treated went unanswered. When I asked Katy Harris, the head of communications in Foster’s office, the response seemed cautious but open: “It is premature to say, as the project is still in the fundraising stage. But if enough money is raised for the project and if we are appointed to work on the design, we would welcome Garatti’s involvement. … Architecturally these are very interesting, highly innovative buildings. … [Garatti] used limited materials and very simple, natural means to great effect in order to create cool interior spaces.”

The current “crisis” of the Cuban Art Schools stems from two concerns: First, that the original project will be altered beyond recognition; and second, that the public nature of the institution will be absorbed into an exclusive, private realm.

Garatti recounted his meeting with Acosta in London: “We agreed that times have changed during the 50-year interval, and that technical and programmatic alterations needed to be prepared. I tried to explain that in many cases I had already anticipated them in the new plans I made 10 years ago. As we looked over the plans, I conceded that some of the practice rooms could be converted into other functions, such as small apartments for guest students or artists who come from abroad.

“I could accept such a change,” Garatti says. “But when we considered the theaters, I began to feel that we were talking about two different things, and even if in the original we wanted to break down the idea of stage to audience, I was willing to rethink the ballet school’s practice theater with a proscenium. But when Acosta then proposed to double the size of the theater, I realized they were going to seriously damage the feeling and intentions of the school; it seemed to me that they would be betraying the communitarian ideals of the project. … The schools were intended to be open to all and open to each other, a place of experimentation, neither elitist nor Socialist Realist.”

Originally, the nearby (and unfinished) theater of the Music School was intended to be a large theater shared by all of the schools, but the current discussions focus only on the Ballet School.

While the Acosta Foundation insists that it is creating a nonprofit, charitable institution, Foster’s office refers to it as a “center” and not a school: “To transform it into a center for dance, the classrooms for teaching academic subjects are no longer needed, and the capacity of the theater would need to be increased within the existing shell.” Adding: “Any interventions would be in harmony with the existing architecture.”

According to detailed analyses of the structural status of the schools carried out by architect Michele Paradiso and his colleagues at the University of Florence, the £10 million ($15.7 million) proposed by Acosta to bring the Ballet School up to snuff would indeed be sufficient to restore all five of the schools rather than just one. While Foster admits to working pro bono, his interventions have typically been among the most expensive per square foot in the history of architecture, which perhaps explains why the Acosta plan would be four or five times the expense of earlier estimates.

While Garatti has doubts about his future role and whether his project will be respected, and others are concerned that Acosta has started to refer to the complex as “my school” and is going to create an elitist institution, a sort of waiting game has begun. John Loomis says, “There is a lot of misunderstanding all around, and the parties involved have more common objectives than what divides them.” Aside from putting pressure on the Cuban Minister of Culture, Rafael Bernal, to sort things out, the crisis would benefit from interjecting an outside arbiter or mediator.

Meanwhile, the dispute has helped publicize the fate of the schools to an international audience. “Carlos Acosta,” Loomis says, “must be praised: He is the exception among successful Cuban expatriots, ready to return with resources to the country he loves. The problem is that up until now he has only been able to gather about £300,000 ($470,000) in pledges, and if UNESCO or the World Monuments Fund should find fault with Acosta’s endeavor, this might adversely affect the funding.” The obvious treasure trove of Cubans living in the United States cannot be tapped unless the U.S. relinquishes its embargo.

In early November, a week before I visited Garatti in his loft in Milan, he and the other two architects of the Cuban Art Schools received the prestigious Vittorio de Sica award from Italian president Giorgio Napolitano in Rome, due to the attention they gained from a 2011 documentary about the schools, Unfinished Spaces, by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray. The three architects signed a concordato, or pact, among themselves that no one should be permitted to destroy the original forms or intentions of the project.

Despite the waiting game, considering the age of the original architects and that of Fidel Castro, and the possibility of regime change, Cuba may soon be able to make good on the revolutionary ideals embedded in the architecture of the Art Schools.