The stepwells of India illustrate how loss of community purpose leads to the disintegration of the built environment through socially random processes. Hundreds of stepwells, usually large, ornate stone structures built around steps descending to water, were constructed in semi-arid western India between the eighth and eighteenth centuries. Social and religious practice originally protected them from activities which interfered with their key role in community life - the provision of clean water - but once stripped of that role by the construction of modern water systems in the twentieth century, collective interest in the wells dissolved, leaving them unattached and unprotected resources.
Their subsequent use depended on the needs of those in their immediate vicinity, and varied as widely as those needs. Wells now in the countryside provide water for irrigation, and shelter for shepherds and farmers. Those in villages and urban areas became swimming holes for local children, washing basins for women, and dwellings for the poor. They became objects of local or personal religious devotion ad were incorporated into neighboring vernacular construction.
While superficially different these uses have two important similarities. First, they appropriate only parts of the well: religious devotion usually focuses on a particular design element, and even modern shrines built in a well take up only part of it: usually an entrance or an interior corner. Only the pavilions are needed for shelter, only the lower steps for clothes washing. This partial appropriation allows for many simultaneous, and sometimes conflicting uses. Second, the uses are relatively unspecialized: the purity of their water no longer matters for washing or swimming; their covered parts became mere shelters from the elements; their sophisticated structural elements became supporting walls for newer construction. Consequently, what little maintenance is carried out in connection with current activities extends toonly one part of the well, frequently involves considerable alteration, and is always blind to the original nuances of form and design.
The stepwells of modern Idia are an extreme example of the entropy of use, and consequently form, that follows the loss of original community purpose, but because the phenomenon arises from such universal processes as technological innovation and change in social needs, all built remains of the past are subject to this entropy in varying degrees. It will be likely be most intense where the forces of modernity and traditional culture are highly disjunct, however, as they are in India, and cause such places to experience the cruellest contradictions between the preservation of the monuments of the past in their entirety and full complexity, and their useful incorporation into contemporary