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An AU faculty member has designed the entire campus of the first American-style university in China.

Peter Weiss, an associate professor in the AU College of Architecture, Design and Construction, has developed the master plan and designed 33 buildings and an iconic bell tower for SIAS International University in ancient Xinzheng City, 300 miles south of Beijing.

The faculty member in AU’s Department of Building Science is the only Westerner permitted by the government of China to design a campus in that country. The university is the only one in China that is permitted to fly the U.S. flag.


The Chinese university has erected 28 of the buildings and enrollment has increased from 100 to 7,500 since Weiss began the project in 2000. With construction under way on the remaining buildings, Chinese officials are preparing for enrollment to reach 12,000 next year.

Although China has more than 2,000 colleges and universities, Weiss said he was told that the selection of an American architect was part of a broader effort to introduce the American university model into China’s higher education system.

For Weiss, the journey to China began 30 miles from Auburn in Columbus, Ga., in 1999, when Chinese entrepreneur Shawn Chen asked a friend at Beacon College, a small, interdenominational Christian college for help finding an architect for an American-style university in China.

The Beacon College faculty member turned to Bruce Erick, then a U.S. Army officer at Fort Benning, who had taken classes at Auburn and at the Columbus institution, which has since been renamed Beacon University. The student recommended Weiss, his former professor at AU, and Chen invited the Auburn faculty member to view the site and discuss the project. Within weeks, the initial contract evolved into the largest project Weiss had ever encountered and one in a part of the world that was new to him.

“At that time, I knew very little about China,” recalled Weiss, who has been a member of the AU faculty since 1983. “My only instruction from Dr. Chen was to build a campus for 10,000 students.” Before the campus was complete, however, enrollment was approaching 12,000.

Although written as an acronym, SIAS is a word created by Chen. The university president told Weiss he chose the name after examining the naming practices of several successful international corporations and organizations.

Weiss soon learned that the job would be one of the largest university design projects ever undertaken by an American architect. Chen wanted to build his modern university in Henan Province in China’s agricultural heartland. As part of a government-supported effort to bring capitalist principles to the communist nation, the university would prepare a new generation of graduates schooled in American business principles.

China sends large numbers of its young people to American universities to learn about business, science, agriculture and technology, but the number of returning graduates is far below market demand in the emerging capitalist economy. Chen informed Weiss that an American-style university in China’s heartland would be a much more efficient way to introduce capitalism to his country.

Weiss, a licensed architect with degrees from three universities, began his designs for the American-style university in March 2000. That September he made his first journey to Xinzheng City and began collaborating with Chinese architects and builders who are implementing his designs.

“One of my first goals was to design buildings and a campus that would give students a sense of comfort in and out of class,” Weiss said. “I knew that would be important to the Americanization process to which these students would be exposed.”

While construction of dormitories and classroom buildings began almost as soon as architectural designs were complete, the first design was a belltower. Space is reserved at the highest point on campus for the structure, and designs for all the buildings reflect that icon’s mix of Chinese and American themes.

“When I started working on the project, I was hoping to get 60 percent or 70 percent of my designs built the way I designed them,” Weiss recalls. “In fact, well over 90 percent has been built to design.”

Two students, Charles Martin and Jennifer Abbot, assisted Weiss with the designs for the SIAS campus. Both have since graduated and are working in the construction industry.