Image by Jia Zhang

Standing in the sky lounge on the 30th floor of a hotel in Seoul feels a bit like being in Lost in Translation, looking out to a terrain of speeding cars in a city of endless glowing skyscrapers and blinking neon signs.

It’s an observation that doesn’t go down well with my host – the Korea Institute of Design Promotion – as Koreans prefer to see the influence of one-time liberator America than their former colonial master, Japan. With a tormented history of war and division, Seoul is a city desperately searching for an identity of its own.

I’m here for Design Korea, a 100% Design style exhibition and conference. It’s an effort by the Korea Institute to draw attention to its commitment to the creative industries, an effort that started to pay off last year when it was announced that Seoul will be the first “World Design City” in 2010. The current Korean approach to design is distinctly consumer-focused. The reality for most is a long career at the corporate powerhouses of Samsung or LG. Otherwise, they flee for Milan, London and Eindhoven, and many don’t return. “It’s easy to find Korean designers, but it’s not easy to name ‘the Korean designer’,” says Jung Boyoung, of Belgium-based office Draw Me A Sheep. “For the last 50 years, the focus on economic progress has meant we have forgotten our intellectual and cultural history.”

The country has two years to boost awareness and interest in design, and it has a tough job on its hands. Seventy per cent of exhibitors in the “young designers” section of Design Korea are showing work produced abroad.

For aspiring designers who choose to stay in Seoul, Hingko University is proving to be the harbour of talent, and one of its more charming graduates is Lee Kwangho. His works include a beautifully messy weave light and a polystyrene sofa, and his projects mark a real sea change in design here, influenced by the conceptual thinking of European designers. It’s a shame his work wasn’t part of Design Korea. The skyscraper housing the show is also host to a labyrinthine underground mall the size of a small English town, various cinemas, a tube station and my hotel. Walking through it feels like I’m experiencing the phenomenon of “glocalisation” first hand. If you remove the Koreans, there is no sense of place, let alone night or day – with overwhelmingly colourful storefronts and advertising, it’s a hyper-mall experience. Even the floor is lit up, fighting for my attention in this air-tight, vacuum-sealed consumer experience of Nike-sponsored iPods, American Apparel, Pizza Hut and Starbucks. More than generically global, consumption here is distinctly American.

This imported culture has proved extremely successful, but problematic. There are concerns about what kind of foundation the country itself has. “We learn, we fill ourselves, we get fat, but we have no muscle,” says one young designer, bleakly referring to Korea’s ability to absorb the lessons of Japan and America but failing to build on them. Unless they start really nurturing their own talent, the trend for studying abroad could become a full-on brain drain.

“‘Masstige’ is perhaps the word,” says Italian architect and designer Simone Carena, now based in Seoul. “A combination of mass and prestige – the idea that ‘I must have this unique thing because everybody has it’.” In relation to investments for World Design City 2010, the government plans to increase the number of design firms in the city from 1,500 to over 2,500 – a high voltage approach. “Korea loves to add steroids and accelerate the process of culture,” adds Carena. “This crazy process produces some wonderful side effects, but it takes a lot of patience to see and appreciate that side.”

Outside of this skyscraper there is still a sense of the ancient city. Seoul was founded in the early 14th century under the Joseon Dynasty, on a site north of the Han River chosen for its feng shui and the protection offered by the mountains. The business here still has a dynastic element – Samsung, LG and Hyundai are all family-run affairs. They penetrate most aspects of society, and are responsible for much of the built environment.

But with architecture things are being resolved in a different way, as I discover on a visit to Cho Minsuk (see news, page 45), who trained at OMA in Rotterdam. Opportunities are blooming for young architects. “Architects come back to Seoul because they can build here and start up on their own, which is difficult in Europe, and there is not so much work in the USA,” says Cho. Like most of the major architects in the city, he studied and worked abroad before returning to set up his office in the centre of the city. Certainly, starchitecture lines its boulevards – UN Studio’s Galleria is just one of a series of beautiful boutiques on Seoul’s equivalent of Tokyo’s Omotesando shopping mecca. Outside our hotel is a Daniel Libeskind, while an MVRDV folly can be seen from a hilltop in the art district. And it was announced last month that Zaha Hadid will be building a vast shopping centre in the Dongdaemun area.

There are housing towers outside the city and business towers at its heart. One hundred-storey residential blocks, virtually unheard of in Europe, are becoming almost commonplace here. The housing stock is relentlessly monotonous, but this is changing with projects like Cho’s spectacular Boutique Monaco, a shiny tower of luxury condominium flats in the city centre, punctured with four storey-height openings and 93 different types of flat.

Seoul is one of the densest cities on the planet (with a population of 20 million if you include the suburbs), and driving through the business district into the old town to meet designer Moon Ji Yoon, I can really feel it. Moon, who studied in London, is setting up a design theory magazine this year. “Korea was an industrial engine for the world economy up to the 1980s,” she says as we sit in a restaurant built for a 19th-century empress. “Although that role has been taken away by China, Korea still depends on manufacturing. However, there has been a lack of critical design discourse that can go along with the industrial development. Things are constantly being made, but no words have been said about them.”

We walk to the subway station and submerge ourselves once more into the fantastically efficient and vast underground network. Seoul Design Week will be starting up just after I leave, mostly focusing on product design. The young designers flown in from around the world will then return to their adopted homes, leaving Seoul to prove that its passion for design supersedes its passion for business.