The longest shortlist ever was made longer by the judges' controversial decision to call in the British Library by Colin St John Wilson after an earlier panel had thrown it out. The library that has cost pounds 511m and taken 14 years to build represents "a monumental achievement in the face of adversity", explains the president of RIBA, David Rock. But describing it as "a fine building, especially internally", Rock highlights its problem. Its rather ugly red brick secretive facade, staggered in more levels than a monastery in Lhasa, hides spectacular interiors.
This inability to make the facade express the building's function would not have endeared it to James Stirling. Throughout his career he was committed to revealing what went on inside his buildings. In the highly entertaining Big Jim, his biographer Mark Girouard points out that Stirling found Sandy Wilson's "impressive" design for Sheffield University "distasteful in the matter of principle... in as much as it is regarded entirely legitimate to give an overall single expression to a block which has such highly diverse accommodation."
You can't level that sort of criticism at three lottery-funded projects up for the prize. Ian Ritchie's handsome little concert platform in Crystal Palace, which is like the lid of a grand piano, is explicit. It also has great acoustics. Norman Foster's American Air museum at Duxford in Cambridge, in the form of a doughnut-shaped torus with a bite out of it, is a brilliant showcase for the B2 bomber hanging from its concrete shell roof.
And the politely modern Richard Attenborough Centre at the University of Leicester, by Ian Taylor with Bennetts Associates, is discretion and tact, neatly packaged. In a two-part competition funded by The Independent and organised by RIBA, lottery money was used to create an arts centre that placed the needs of disabled people at the heart of the design process. The result is a building that "avoids knee-jerk solutions in the shape of the disability aids", the judges rather insensitively point out. It arouses no strong feelings either of dislike or enthusiasm, but no one can deny its popularity with the users.
There's more Foster shortlisted with the hanging gardens of the gigantic Commerzbank in Frankfurt. With the cluster of other German projects up for the prize, this reminds us that the watershed in Stirling's life was his Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. Two buildings by Behnisch Behnisch & Partners are up for a prize, no doubt to compensate for this RIBA-affiliated architect's loss of the Bristol Arts Centre when the lottery funding failed to materialise - they are a bank as big as a city block in Stuttgart, and a Dresden Catholic grammar school.
David Chipperfield was also nominated for an award, for a "muscular concrete" office block on the docks at Dusseldorf. He's the right architect, but it's the wrong building. The Henley River and Rowing Museum should have bagged the prize for him. There is a neat piece of restoration, with the classical orders restored, in the Temple of Concord and Victory, in Stowe, by Peter Inskip and Peter Jenkins. Also in the running is a coolly modern, light-filled pounds 750,000 house and indoor pool in Hampstead, by Rick Mather architects. So is the Quay Bar in Manchester, by Stephenson/Bell, which shows post-rave Mancunian night-life yuppified in a small pub-brewery that looks more like a wine bar.
The annual silver award of the Goldschmied Trust will also be presented on 19 November. It gives pounds 5,000 for the best new building costing less than pounds 500,000, and has been renamed the Stephen Lawrence award as a memorial to the studious teenager murdered in a racial attack in 1993. He had wanted to be an architect, and did work experience in his school holidays with a young architect, Arthur Timothy, who helped build 48 flats and 12 workshops with landscaped gardens for the Lovell Urban renewal company on a derelict site in Deptford, south-east London.
"Every idea had been dismissed because of high unemployment there," Arthur Timothy recollects. "But we found Deptford a vibrant, wonderful place. Cultural diversity should be celebrated, and reflected in the built environment." But if so, should the award in Lawrence's name be given to architects of mostly middle-income, middle-class private house extensions?
Marco Goldschmied, who has put up the money for the Stephen Lawrence award, thinks that criticism is typical of the London chattering classes. "My main thrust is to re-establish a public understanding of what architecture can do, and to reveal the vocational skills of the architect's work. They're closer to teachers than to lawyers." He is standing for president of the RIBA when David Rock steps down this year, so maybe he will have the chance to make these views known.
Stephen's father, Nevile Lawrence, says mildly: "It would be nice if a public building won, so that people could go to it."
That leaves only the tiny London flower shop Wild at Heart, by Future Systems; a ski tow pavilion by Chris Wilkinson; and, more appropriately, the Scout Training Centre by David Gregory, in Hampshire.
Soon the Stephen Lawrence Trust will announce a bursary for young people to study for five years at the Architectural Association. "We came up with the idea when Stephen died, but it's taken time to get the trust up and running," Stephen's father says. "Religion, race, it doesn't matter. We've made it clear we don't see colour as a problem." The Lawrences will follow the bursary student through to the very end. "It's going to be like my adopted son or daughter... they will have achieved what my son couldn't."
A voting booth for the Stirling prize winner opens at RIBA, 66 Portland Street, Wl, on 9 November - or record your vote on the website www.riba.net/stirling
Matfield Oast, Kent pounds 320,000 by Clarke Kidwell Architects
Solent Scout Centre, Sheffield pounds 295,000 by David Gregory
Cultural Greenhouse, France, pounds 400,000 by Ian Ritchie
Wild at Heart flower shop, London pounds 60,000 by Future Systems
Ski Tow pavilion, Bedfont pounds 50,000 by Chris Wilkinson
House extension, Edinburgh, pounds 62,000 by Richard Murphy
Extension, pounds 25,000 by J & M Donald